An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Passing Intimacy Avendor

It was still dark when Avendor felt the hand on his shoulder, gently nudging him. In the passing of a single heartbeat, all the instincts that had been tuned so tightly in another life brought him to full wakefulness. His eyes snapped open and he reached toward the side of his bed where he once kept a hidden dagger. When his fingers found nothing, he simply reached out, grabbed his assailant by the hair and prepared to strike with his bare hands.

“Ow!” screamed his wife. “Ashes and embers, Avendor! That hurts!”

He released her immediately. A wave of irritation washed through his mind. He fell back into his pillow, releasing a deep sigh of relief and wondering if she knew how close she had just come to death. If he had still kept that knife at his bedside, he knew he would have used it. “By the Nine, Vivian. You startled me.”

“Clearly,” she replied, rubbing her scalp. “Why did you do that?”

“Old habits. I’m not used to anyone else around when I’m sleeping. What are you doing up here, anyhow?” The words came out harsher than he intended them, but the question was still a valid one. It had been well over a year since he had taken to sleeping on a single bed in the loft of their modest home, and he could not remember the last time that Vivian had climbed the ladder to his space.

“Last I checked, it was my house too.”

“You know what I mean. You never come up here.”

“You have a visitor.”

“At this time of the night? It’s that old blind sage from the palace.”

“Tiberius? Are you sure?”

“Do you know any other blind old men?”

“As a matter of fact, I don’t. I’m sorry, it’s just—ashes and embers, what is he doing here?

“He didn’t say. He just—“ Abruptly, Vivian hunched over. Her hands fell to her abdomen and she clutched herself as though she had just been struck. A look of writhing agony crossed her face. Instinctively, Avendor reached out to support her, and she very nearly collapsed into his arms.

“Vivian, what’s wrong?”

“I—I’ve been feeling ill the past few days.” Avendor could see the truth of her words in her face. Her eyes were red around the lids, as though she had not slept in days, and her skin was unusually pale. As she trembled in his arms, he felt a momentary pang of regret that he had not been aware of his wife’s sickness. He quickly pushed the feeling from his mind.

She’s the one who wants nothing to do with me, he reminded himself. She’s the one who’s been pushing me away since the day we were married. Still, while there had never been anything vaguely resembling love between them, Avendor still hated to see her suffering through whatever pain she was currently enduring. So he held her there for a long moment, stroking her hair with both the awkward intimacy of strangers cast together by some strange twist of fate, and the practiced familiarity of another time, a time when there had been a woman that he had loved.

“Are you alright?” he asked after a moment, when her trembling seemed to have subsided somewhat.

“I think so—I just need to lie down.”

He nodded, slowly lowering his wife into the bed from which he had just risen. It felt strange and foreign. “Just rest here,” he told her.

“But—“

“It’s just a bed, Vivian. No strings attached. I’ll get you a blanket, and when you’ve recovered enough strength, you can go back to your own bed. Deal?”

“Fair enough.”

He picked up the blanket that he kept folded at the foot of the bed and pulled over his wife, offered her as much of a reassuring smile as he could manage, then turned toward the ladder.

“Avendor,” said Vivian. He did not turn. That would have been too much for her, an act of intimacy that, under normal circumstances, she would not tolerate. Instead, he simply paused and glanced back over his shoulder, waiting for her to speak. “I—I wanted to—“ It was very unlike her to stumble over her words. “Thank you.”

“Sleep well, Vivian,” was all he could say in reply.

He slipped down the ladder, hoping that she would fall asleep quickly. It was strange to see her ill. In the four years that they had been married, he could not ever remember seeing her succumb to any type of real sickness—though he was reasonably certain that she would have hidden it from him if she could. It was simply in her nature. She was normally so fiery and stubborn he could almost believe her to be capable of driving off the plague through nothing but the sheer force of her will—likely in an effort to spite him.

He often wondered how her father had ever convinced her to marry in the first place. More importantly, he wondered why she had agreed to marry him. For Avendor, their nuptials had been a means of saving his own life—though it had also meant cutting all ties with who he once was. He had been given a very clear choice between the altar or the stocks. In the end, it had been a simple decision, based entirely on the natural human tendency toward self-preservation. Better a loveless marriage, he had reasoned, than a lifeless corpse.

He had thought about that moment many times since the day of his marriage, and though things could be difficult between him and Vivian, he still believed he had made the right choice. He had given up one life, and found a new one.

But what about her? he wondered. What did she give up? And why? It was not the sort of question that he could ever ask of her—at least not without her turning on him and telling him to mind his own business—so he simply gave up thinking about it. There were some questions in life for which you simply never find an answer. Avendor could not help feeling that his wife was one of those questions.

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