An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Escape from the Flames Tiberius

He knew that someone was calling him, but it was a distant sound, like the echo heard from across a wide valley. He tried to ignore the voice, to convince himself that it was not meant for him. He was exhausted, far beyond all measure, and rousing himself to answer the voice would require far too much effort. He preferred to simply lay where he was, waiting for the end.

Tiberius! called the voice again. Where are you? It sounded closer this time, clearer and somehow familiar. It was a voice he knew, a voice that he had heard only recently. Ripples of memory began to stir, pushing him toward an undesired wakefulness. He resisted, content to rest in the peaceful oblivion in which he found himself, clinging to old memories that were little more than a vague feelings and emotions. It was peaceful there. Yes there was some pain—the persistent sense of loss from a wound that would never quite heal—but its familiarity was comfortable.

Tiberius! He felt himself being lifted off the ground. Wake up you old fool. You’re not finished here. Not yet.

“Rala?” he asked. “Is that you?”

“Sorry,” replied the voice. It seemed deeper now, and more immediate. Just a few short inches from his ear. “I’m afraid it’s just me.”

“Captain Avendor?” asked Tiberius.

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

“I was thinking of asking you the same question,” said the Captain. “But at the moment, we’ve got bigger problems. Are you in pain?”

“No. I’m just strangely tired.”

“Just relax. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Out of where? Where am I? Weakly, Tiberius raised his hand to his forehead, pressing his thumb and finger against his throbbing temples, struggling to drive away the fog from his mind. He could remember being tired and alone. He could remember heat too—so vividly that it still seemed to linger around him. No, he realized. That’s no memory. Suddenly, be became aware of the crackling and snapping all about him.

“Fire,” he wheezed. Why was it so difficult to breath?

“I’d noticed,” said Avendor. “I’m afraid the house is going up in flame. If we don’t get out of here soon, we’re going to go with it.” Pelor! He remembered the fisherman. He remembered coming to his house, looking for answers—answers about Prince Jayslen. But then something had gone wrong. Something unexpected. “I can’t save your friend though. The Nine bless his poor soul.”

Suddenly, he remembered everything. Pelor had been murdered. Then the assassin had turned on Tiberius and he had called on the Steward’s Fire in self-defence. That was why the house was burning.

And that was why he felt just one step removed from death.

“How attached are you to your cloak?” Avendor asked.

“It’s served me well enough over the years,” Tiberius responded. “But I would not be heartbroken if I needed to replace it. The Queen gave it to me some years ago, as recompense for all the trouble Jayslen put me through.”

“Then maybe she’ll buy you a new one. I’m sorry. This is not going to be pleasant.” Tiberius felt Avendor reach out for something.

“What are you—“ Before the sage could finish the question, the Captain had doused him in what felt like an entire river’s worth of water. It was cold. The sudden shock sent a chill through his entire body.

“Ashes and embers!” Tiberius swore, though his outrage was feigned; he already suspected what Avendor was about to do. A moment later, his suspicions were confirmed.

“Hold on,” said the Captain. His body tensed and, grasping the old man firmly in his arms, he broke into a run. Instinctively, Tiberius found himself counting Avendor’s strides. One. Two. Three. Four. Then he leapt. The heat intensified instantly. The water that soaked his cloak and hair began to hiss as it absorbed the brunt of the heat. Fortunately, the sudden inferno lasted for only the span of a single heartbeat. The next moment, Avendor landed hard and continued running until he was well out of the burning building. Then he dropped to one knee, laying Tiberius on the wooden planks of the boardwalk and tearing the still sopping cloak off of him. The air was cooler, and Tiberius could hear the shouts of a gathering crowd.

“What’s happening?” someone asked.

“It’s a fire, you moron,” responded a woman.

“But isn’t that Pelor’s house? Where is he?”

“Dead,” replied Avendor. “Murdered from the looks of it.”

“Murdered!” cried the woman. “Who would do such a thing?”

“That’s a question for later. Right now, we need to contain this blaze. You! Are you as fast as you look?”

“I don’t—“

“Answer the damned question!” roared Avendor.

“I run well enough,” the man said, with the timid anger of someone who had just been severely reprimanded.

“Then start running. All the way to the Upper City. Find the first Winged Guard you come across and tell him to send Cheven down here as quickly as possible. When he arrives, he’ll be in charge.”

“Now wait just a minute,” said the woman. “Who do you think you are, ordering us around? How’d we know you’re not the murderer?”

“If I was, do you really think I’d be here telling you about it? My name is Avendor Tarcoth, Captain of the Winged Guard, and unless you want me to come back down here tomorrow in full uniform and drag you both before the Queen so that you can explain to her why ignored my orders and let the Stilt District go up in flames, I suggest you start moving. Now.”

The elected messenger did not even pause to acknowledge the Captain’s words. He took off in a dead run, his feet beating hard against the wood of the boardwalk.

“The rest of you, fetch water or sand, whatever you can find to get this fire under control! I’ll be back when I can.”

“You’re leaving?” asked the woman. Her tone was incredulous, and still somewhat defiant.

“See those two bodies over there? Those men attacked me, along with two others, and in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m bleeding quite extensively. My friend very nearly died in that fire. I’m going to find a healer. Any objections?” The only answer was the crackling of the fire and the sounds of more people joining the growing crowd.

Avendor turned and walked in silence for several minutes, following a meandering path until they were well away from the burning building. Tiberius could feel their pace slowing. The Captain’s breath was growing fast and haggard. The exertion of carrying Tiberius was obviously becoming too much for him.

“Stop,” said the sage. “You can’t go on much longer.”

“Just a little further,” Avendor replied. The tenseness of his voice indicated that his jaw was clenched tightly. The Captain was doing his best to fight through the pain, but he would not be able to go much further.

“If you’re losing blood, you’re losing strength. I can feel the strength coming back to my legs. I think I can walk for a ways—if you can help support me.” In truth, Tiberius was not at all certain as to how much energy he actually had, but it would be enough to give Avendor at least a brief reprieve. The last thing they needed was to have the Captain collapse from exhaustion, leaving them both exposed and vulnerable. He could not he shake the unsettling feeling that they were being watched. He was not certain if Avendor was in any shape for another fight, but it was better to keep him on his feet if possible.

“If you’re certain,” said Avendor, gently lowering Tiberius to his feet. The sage’s legs resisted and he nearly stumbled, but Avendor caught him and offered the sage his arm to lean on.

“Thank you.”

We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?” muttered Avendor. Tiberius could only chuckle in response. “Exactly what happened back there?”

“I’m not sure.” The sage related his encounter with Pelor, the fisherman’s subsequent murder, and his confrontation with the assassin. He was careful, however, not to reveal anything about his purposes, or the nature of the information he was seeking. He hoped that the Captain would simply accept that it had to do with Jayslen’s death—which Tiberius suspected was close enough to the truth.

You started that fire?”

“I’m afraid so,” the sage replied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tried doing anything like that. I simply haven’t had the need. It took more out of my than I expected, and I lost control of some of the flames.”

“Regardless,” said the Captain. “It seems I owe you my life.” He went on to explain how he had been attacked shortly after Tiberius had entered the house. “The brigands were simple enough to dispatch, though my shoulder is a little worse for wear. But the Burnt Man—well, he’s something else entirely. He’s more than just a mercenary for hire. He’s one of the most dangerous assassins alive.”

“You sound as though you know him well,” Tiberius mused. The thought struck him as odd. What business did the Captain of the Winged Guard have knowing murderers and cutthroats? There was more to Avendor Tarcoth than there seemed. Tiberius was not sure how he felt about this new revelation.

“I doubt anyone knows him well,” the Captain replied. His tone was hard, and full of a long-held anger. “We crossed paths a few times, a years ago. I had hoped to never see him again, but something tells me this business is far from finished. Tell me more about this other assassin, this man who killed your friend.”

“He was quiet,” Tiberius said. “I don’t think Pelor ever heard him approaching. He spoke in an arrogant and self-assured manner, and he had a strange, hissing lisp. I don’t think he expected any trouble from a blind old man, but I won’t surprise him again.  I doubt that he would hesitate to stick a knife in my back.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t get the chance,” said Avendor. “He does not sound familiar to me, but if he’s working the the Burnt Man, we have to assume that he’s dangerous. Ashes and embers, this complicates everything.”

“How do you mean?”

“There’s your journey to Ronnex for one. I was confident in sending Colyn Lanarton with you, but now I’m not so sure. Colyn’s an accomplished swordsman, but I don’t know how well he would fare against trained assassins. More importantly, there’s the Queen’s Council. I don’t like this timing at all. An assassin like the Burnt Man appears when virtually every major and minor Lord from across the entire Realm will be converging here in the city over the next few days? That’s not something I’m prepared to dismiss as coincidence.”

“I can see your concerns,” Tiberius said. It made perfect sense, and only served to confirm his growing sense that Avendor was far more than just a simple guardsman. His thought patterns did not line up with usual military thinking. The sage was not certain that even old Seamus would have come to such conclusions so quickly.

No, Tiberius thought. He doesn’t think like a guardsman at all. He seems to think more—he paused, not liking the direction of his next thought.

More like an assassin.

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