An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Burnt Man Avendor

Avendor hit the ground hard. The hatchet came so close to his head that it rustled his hair before striking the stone wall behind him. He did not bother to look for where it landed. Instead, he leapt to one side, planted his foot and launched himself in the direction from which the attack had come. He stayed low, holding his sword defensively. Three armed men melted from the shadows. He did not recognize any of them, but he knew their type—cutthroats and brigands with the glint of murder in their eyes.

Avendor was not about to give them the opportunity to act on those intentions. He exploded into action.

With a twist of his wrist, he adjusted his grip on the short sword, so that it followed the curve of his inner forearm. He lashed out, catching the first of the strangers full in the throat. Blood spattered as the shocked brigand fell into death, but Avendor was already turning toward the next man. Flipping his blade, he delivered a hard slash to the chest. The blow was turned away with the hollow ring of chain mail, but its impact was enough to send the man stumbling backward. Avendor turned, dancing to the side and catching the head of the third man’s axe on the cross-guard of his sword. Then he drove the heel of his boot into the side of the man’s knee, causing the would-be-murderer to cry out and stumble backward.

Mustering every ounce of strength he could find, the Captain of the Winged Guard caught the man with a powerful right hook to the face. A loud crack rewarded him and the man’s eyes glazed over. When he fell to one knee, his jaw hung at a strange angle.

Ashes and embers, that hurt! thought Avendor. How long had it been since he punched someone in the face? Years? It seemed more painful than he remembered.

There was no time to think about it. The man he had struck in the chest had recovered and was on him again, lashing out with a vicious looking knife. Even though Avendor saw it coming, he was still a fraction of a second too slow. Cold iron bit through the flesh of his sword arm, just above his elbow. Warm blood spread across his skin, soaking into his shirt. He clenched his teeth and ignored the bloom of fresh pain. Flipping his sword to his other hand, he silently thanked the Guardian for all the time he had spent running drills on the practice field, preparing himself for just such an occasion.

“Flaming bastard,” growled the man. “It’s time to die.” Avendor could not quite place the accent, though it was clear that the brigand was not from the city. Somewhere from the east?

“I think not,” replied the Captain. He rushed forward and, in a near exact imitation of his duel with Colyn, appeared to stumble. Predictability, he knew, was not limited to the professional soldier. The brigand was quick to capitalize on the apparent opportunity. At the last possible moment, Avendor twisted, drove his knee into the man’s gut and spun away. The result of those movements were exactly the same as they had been with Colyn—except that this time Avendor was not wielding a practice blade. The edge of his sword tore through the man’s hamstrings.

He screamed as he fell to the ground. Then Avendor silenced him forever.

That left the man with the broken jaw. Avendor turned to face him, but he was already stumbling away, leaving a trail of blood as he went. For one brief moment, Avendor considered following. There was, he found, a certain natural inclination to know more about a man who just tried to kill him, but he knew he had other more important matters to attend to—like getting into the fisherman’s house and ensuring that Tiberius was still alive and breathing.

He wheeled back in the direction of the house, only to find another man blocking his path. The newcomer was tall, with all the angular narrowness of a mantis turned human. He was leaning on a long, black-shafted spear, and clad in armour cut from dark, boiled leather, reinforced with bronze studs. His entire left arm was covered in a long glove that stretched up past his elbow. An black, iron mask, which hid every part of his face but his eyes, had been wrought into the likeness of some twisted demon.

Unlike the brigands he had just fought, Avendor did know this man. They called him the Burnt Man, and it was said that the face behind the mask was hideously scarred. He was a thief, assassin and mercenary for hire, usually at a substantial cost.

“Well, well,” growled the Burnt Man. From behind the mask, his voice sounded muffled and distant. “What have we here? I heard you were dead, Axter.”

“You heard wrong,” Avendor retorted. How long has it been since I’ve heard that name? Probably as long as it’s been since I punched someone in the face.

“An unfortunate oversight, I’m sure. I’m only too happy to correct it.”

“How do you think that’ll turn out? If I recall, the last time we met, things didn’t go your way. I assume you still have the scar.”

“I’ve had worse,” the Burnt Man snapped.

“So I’ve heard. Listen Coal-Face.” Avendor’s mood wad beginning to deteriorate rapidly, and his patience with it. “I don’t know what you’re up to, or who you’re working for, but I suggest you move out of my way—and preferably out of the city completely.”

“Or what?” laughed the Burnt Man. “You’re going to cut me with your big knife there. You call that a sword?”

“It worked well enough on your hired cutthroats.”

“Those idiots? They’re not mine. Besides, you know I’m better than them.”

Though hated to admit it, Avendor could not dispute the comment. In many of the darker, seedier corners of the Realm, the Burnt Man had a reputation for brutal efficiency. In another life, when the name Axter had been more than just a distant memory, Avendor would not have hesitated. He was older now, and though he had no problem dispatching common brigands, the Burnt Man was a different matter altogether. With the wound to his sword arm, he was not at all confident in his ability to survive a fight with the mercenary.

Of course, he doubted that he would have much of a choice.

“I’ve been cursing your death for years,” said the Burnt Man. He hefted his spear and assumed a fighting stance. “For denying the pleasure of handing it to you myself. I hope the years haven’t softened you too much, Axter. Because I’m going to make this hurt.”

Avendor scowled and raised his sword defensively. It was, he knew, not the ideal weapon, given the situation. The Burnt Man’s uncommon height already granted him a superior reach, which was only compounded by the length of his spear. Somehow, Avendor needed to negate that particular advantage—either that or find a way to get in close, where the spear would become more of a liability. But there was danger in that too. He was not foolish enough to believe that the mercenary carried only a single weapon.

The Burnt Man flourished his spear, spinning it above his head and around his body. The razor sharp head moved too fast for Avendor to follow, but he was not as concerned about where it was at any given moment as he was with where it was going in the next. He watched the mercenary’s footwork, the angle of his legs and the position of his arms, waiting for the telltale movement that would signal the first attack. When it came, Avendor was ready.

He was still nearly skewered.

He danced to one side, using his sword to knock the shaft of the spear away. He stepped back to where he had stood only an instant before, then ducked low, narrowly evading a potentially fatal jab. He jumped backward, just out of the Burnt Man’s reach.

“What’s wrong little man?” mocked the mercenary. “Is your little knife feeling inadequate?”

“Just taking my time,” Avendor lied. The truth was that he felt overwhelmed. The longer this confrontation lasted, he knew, the more likely it was to end in his own death. At least the rush of the battle was numbing the pain in his arm, allowing him to focus on doing whatever he could to stay alive.

“Well take this!” The Burnt Man rushed him, throwing the entire weight of his body behind a single blow. Avendor spun to his left, but he was not fast enough. The edge of the spearhead tore through his cloak and along the small of his back, opening another shallow wound. Acting on instinct—and pure desperation—he dropped his arms, catching the shaft of the spear with the crook of each elbow. He twisted with all the force he could manage, wrenching the weapon from the Burnt Man’s hands and sending it rattling along the boardwalk.

The mercenary swore in frustration and tore a dagger from its sheath on his hip. He started forward, then he paused, as though been struck by a sudden fear.

“We’ll finish this another time,” the Burnt Man growled. He turned and fled into the night. Avendor watched him go, wondering at his sudden fortune. He was not certain how much more of the fight he could have endured. But why had the mercenary fled? Surely the loss of his spear was not enough to strike such fear into his heart. What then? he wondered. What could possibly make a man like him run? As the thought passed through his mind, he became aware of a growing warmth behind him. At first, he assumed it was nothing more than a symptom of his wound—until he realized that he could feel the heat across his entire back, down his legs and up his neck. The night seemed brighter too.

And then he knew. What was the one thing the Burnt Man feared above all else? The very thing that scorched his face.

Fire.

Avendor turned. The fisherman’s house was burning.

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