An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Guardian’s Face Carvesh

When Carvesh awoke from his dreamless slumber, it was to a symphony of songbirds trilling in the trees far above his head. The small ravine, which had been surrounded by an impenetrable darkness the previous night, was now aglow with the soft light of the early morning. Diffused shafts of sunlight beamed down between the branches. The morning air felt cool and fresh as he breathed it in, tickling his nose with the scent of spruce and cedar. For one pleasant moment, he allowed himself to enjoy the natural beauty of his surroundings.

Then he remembered how he had come to be in this place. His mind snapped to full wakefulness and he bounded to his feet, turning to where he had laid Quelana the previous night. He expected to find her laying still and unmoving beneath her blanket; he feared that what he found would be far worse.

He was not at all prepared to find her sitting up, drinking from a hollowed gourd and eating a breakfast of nuts and berries. She appeared refreshed and free of pain, chatting quietly with Madik. The Hunter was sitting on a nearby log, with Winter was curled up at his feet. Quelana looked nothing like the woman that Carvesh had carried to this place the previous night. Could the vile looking herbs that she had pushed into her arm have acted so quickly? It did not seem possible, even for someone with her Flameborn talents.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” said a voice. Carvesh turned to find Lord Carwell, standing beside him. “I wasn’t certain that she’d survive through the morning. Now it’s as though she was never wounded at all.”

“But how?”

“I have to believe that it has to do with the nature of this place. An Alnhome is a place of Olde Magic—older than the Flameborn or even the Iria, if half of what I’ve read is true.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. A look of peace passed over his face. “You can almost feel it in the air.”

“Maybe it’s because your Flameborn,” said Carvesh. “Personally, I can’t feel a thing. Still, if it helped Quelana, I suppose I’m grateful.” It was only as he gazed around the ravine that he realized that someone was missing. “Where’s Taaru?”

“He was gone when we awoke, but there was water, berries and nuts, so I can only assume he laid them out and left shortly before dawn. He seems to have been true to his word—he did bring us to safety—but I’m still not sure about him. Who is he? Where did he come from and why is he helping us?”

“I couldn’t say. All I know is that he’s helped me twice now.”

“That still doesn’t mean he’s a friend.”

“No,” Carvesh agreed. “But he might be an ally. At the very least, he seems to know more about these shadowbeasts than we do. I think we should at least try to learn whatever we can from him.”

“You’ll get no argument from me there,” replied Lord Carwell. “I just want you to understand that I’m not yet prepared to offer him overtures of friendship.”

“I understand.”

“Good. Hungry?”

“Famished.”

“There’s still plenty to eat.”

They joined Quelana and Madik. The hunter offered Carwell his log, but the Lord declined, content to lower himself to the ground and lounge comfortably beneath the shaded canopy of a tall elm.

“How are you feeling?” Carvesh asked Quelana between mouthfuls of sweet berries and rich pine nuts.

“Fine,” she replied, though she had a puzzled look on her face. “Better than fine, really. To be honest, I expected the wound to be infected when I awoke. Maybe even festering. But it’s completely gone. There’s not even a hint of a scar. I’ve never seen anything like it. The best Flameborn healers in the Realm would not have been able to heal it so effectively.”

“The Olde Magic, uncle?” asked Carvesh.

“No doubt,” replied Carwell. “Alnhomes have strange powers, though they’re not always so—accommodating.”

“You seen one before,” said Madik.

“Only once. Long ago, when I was campaigning on the Ice Range with Merek, back before he was ascended to the Winged Throne.”

“What was it like?” asked Quelana.

“Much like this, to be honest. It was warm and bright, and filled with a sense of tranquility, at least at first.”

Madik grunted. “I’ve roamed all over that blasted wasteland, and never seen anything like this. Didn’t think anything warm was allowed in that part of the world.”

“It’s well hidden. So well that you could search for years and never stumble across it. We only found it because we were invited.”

“By who?” asked Carvesh.

“Someone your father knew.” It was an evasive answer and, while he wanted to press the matter, something in Carwell’s tone indicated that it was not a subject he was open to discussing further. As they continued to eat, the conversation turned to the events of the previous night. They each have voice to the troubling questions that had been haunting them all. What was the demon?Was it alone, or were there others like it? Had Jadoc and Dane made it safely back to Kervale?

Alone and isolated in the ravine, such questions loomed like a great cloud of uncertainty that seemed to pervade even the unnatural tranquility of the ravine. Though Carvesh’s slumber had been oddly peaceful, since waking he had felt a gnawing sense of anxiety bubbling up in his spirit.

When Taaru finally returned, Carvesh very nearly leapt to his feet.

The swordsman approached with a silence that belied his great bulk, melting out of the trees like a wraith. His face remained hidden beneath the shadows of his deep cowl. But in the brighter light of the morning, Carvesh caught the vaugest impression of the face concealed within that cowl, and while most of the details remained hidden within the shadows, one thing was clear. It was not a human face.

But if he’s not human, what is he?

“Good morning,” he rumbled. “It is good to see you up and recovered, lady of the Fiery Hair. I trust that you slept well.”

“I did, thank you.”

“You are most welcome, though I did nothing but bring you to this place. I have retrieved your horses. They are fed, watered and waiting for you in a clearing near the road whenever you are ready for them. But if you would spare a moment, there are other matters I would discuss with you. I have given this much thought, Carvesh of the Great Oak, and I have come to a decesion. If you will have it, I would lend you my aid in your struggle against the jychra.”

“You seek an alliance with us?” asked Lord Carwell.

“No,” responded Taaru. “I mean no disrespect, Lord of the Humans, but I extend my offer to Carvesh, slayer of the sjataki, and to him alone.”

“I’m only a farmer,” Carvesh protested forcefully. He had spent all of his years in Kervale attempting to distance himself from all matters of politics, and though he had recently revealed the truth of his identity to his companions, he had no desire to form alliances. Doing so would only draw further attention to himself. “I have no position or authority.”

“I care nothing for such things,” said Taaru. “I make this offer from myself, and the iron in my own blood. Perhaps if I spoke on behalf of my people, such things would matter. But I am afraid that cannot be.”

“Why?”

“As I have told you, I am all that remains. My people are no more. We were betrayed and overrun by The Ones Who Come Before. And now they are crossing the Stonewall through the Pass of Kharil, as was never meant to be. I am the last of the Tribe of Odar, and I will continue to perform the duty that is expected of me. I will fight the jychra, and if you will accept my aid, I will teach you too do the same. Either way, I swear to you, by the iron blood of my fathers and the very bones of the mountains, I will not rest until every jychra west of the Stonewall is destroyed—or until I am sent into the beyond to rest with my kin.”

“Noble words,” snapped Carwell. “But forgive me if I have trouble accepting such sentiment from a man who hides his face from those he seeks to help.” He was answered by a deep, rumbling growl.

“Uncle,” Carvesh whispered in warning, but the Lord payed him no heed.

“Reveal yourself,” pressed Carwell. “I would look upon the face of any man who seeks to ally himself with my friend.”

“Your kind have a long standing reputation for hatred and distrust,” snarled Taaru, “even amongst yourselves. But because I cannot deny the truth of your words, and will not be accused of cowardice, I will do as you say.” He reached up with one massive, gloved hand and pulled back his hood. Carvesh felt his jaw drop. It was all he could do not to recoil in shock. He heard Quelana gasp. Madik let out a low whistle.

The shape of Taaru’s head was very similar to one of Carvesh’s own bulls, save that its snout was less pronounced and had more the appearance of a broad, dominant nose. His eyes were different too. Clear, blue and fiercely intelligent, they were set beneath a deep, severely angled brow. His skin was covered in a fine, rudy fur that grew darker and thicker around his jaw. Thick horns extended from each side of his skull, curving elegantly around large, bovine ears that were each adorned with a number of iron rings.

By the Nine, thought Carvesh. He’s a bloody minotaur. He could hardly believe his eyes. Such creatures were the stuff of myth and legend.

“Look, then, upon my face,” rumbled Taaru. “What say you now, Lord of the Humans?”

If Lord Carwell was surprised, he did not let a hint it touch his face. He simply nodded and said, “Be welcome in the Province of Nevhen, Taaru of the Odar.”

“You do not appear shocked,” said the minotaur. His eyes were fixed squarely on the Lord of Sharenden. He sounded almost surprised.

“Why should I?” responded Carwell. “I know all to well that humans are not the only people in this world. I’ve spilled Titan blood on the Ice Range. I’ve read the stories of the Fey Wars and seen the expanse of the Shimmering with my own eyes. It was clear from your words and your stature that you are not human, so why should I be surprised to discover what was already obvious?

“Besides, there have been rumours for years—stories of large creatures that stalked the mountains of the Stonewall, walking like men but far too large to be so. Mostly, such stories have been dismissed, but I’ve always wondered. If the Titans can inhabit the frozen wastes of the Ice Range, why couldn’t there be something living in the mountains as well? It seems I was not mistaken in my thinking.”

“You were not,” replied Taaru. “We make our home deep within the mountains, and make it a habit to avoid any humans who ventured into the passes. But I suppose we could not hide all evidence of our existence.”

“Not from a skilled mountaineer,” said Madik. “Of course, most other folk don’t have much trust in hunters and trappers, which probably accounts for their not believing the stories. You say you guarded the pass? The big gorge, about a fifty miles east of here?”

“Yes,” the minotaur nodded. “That would be the Pass of Kharil.”

“Around here we call it Evernight Gorge, on account of the sun’s light hardly touching it. Been there once myself, though never saw anything that made me think anyone was living out there. Hellish looking place if ever there was one. Seems to me that gorge pretty much guards itself. Can’t imagine anything crossing it.”

“My people did not live in the pass itself,” said Taaru. “We merely guarded it. As you say, the shadows are deep in Kharil, and this only lends strength to the jychra, and others of the Remnant’s fiends.”

“There’s that name again,” said Lord Carwell. “Who is this Remnant? Last night you said that answers would come with the light.”

“That I did. So be it. The Remnant threatens your people. In truth, she is a threat to all people, but perhaps yours most of all. You have the right to hear what I have to say, though I do not think it will please you.”

“I’ve heard bad news before.”

“Not like this. You say you’ve read the history of your people’s war with the Quilani—the Fey, as you call them. Then you will also recognize the Remnant’s name, for once she was the Qualarch, known to the world as Tatalanaria.”

“The Fey Queen,” whispered Carvesh in awe.

“The very same.”

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