An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Shade at Sunrise Shade

Sitting alone on the red, clay-tiled roof of The Fool’s Fiddle, Shade watched as the sun made its ascent over the eastern horizon, washing the rolling hills of Kilinshire in that golden light that was only ever seen at dawn. Already, the long western shadows were beginning to shorten, like the last, residual pools of night evaporating with the coming day.

Like the Warrior chasing away the darkness, her mother would have said. But then, her mother had always been devout, right onto her dying breath. Shade assumed that she took after her father. She made a conscious effort not to concern herself with matters of the Cathedral. The majority of priests and chaplains she had known throughout her life had little patience for women and, depending on the circumstances of their encounters, tended to see her as a thoughtless commoner, an immoral harlot, or both. The few who knew who she really was made a habit of avoiding her completely.

Shade had discovered that men—especially those of a religious nature—tended to grow uncomfortable around a woman with the reputation for being able to slit a man’s throat in his sleep. It hardly mattered that she had never performed such a gruesome act. That reputation had served her well over the years.

It had also helped bring her to her present circumstance.

As the sun bathed the world in the newness of day, Shade found her mind returning once more to the events of the past few days. She was still struggling with a number of troubling details—beyond having been duped into killing the wrong man. It all started with Lady Vander. She had seemed so genuine in her disdain, so determined to see her son come into his inheritance, that Shade was having trouble accepting that she had been so thoroughly deceived.

Had Oralon Vander somehow manipulated his wife? That too was difficult to believe. Even in the brevity of their lone encounter, Shade had seen a rare cunning in Alys Vander.

Something was not adding up. Once she saw Laird off toward Wellan, she intended to pinpoint exactly what that something was. She just hoped what she found did not add to the sense of uncertainty growing in the back of her mind.

Shade liked to think of herself as a rational woman who thought things through and weighed all the options before making a decision. Her acceptance of Sir Vander’s proposal pointed to a different reality. The truth was that she struggled with a tendency toward impulsiveness—sometimes a very strong tendency. She could not help wondering if she had been too quick in taking this new contract.

It was not that she necessarily believed she had made the wrong decision. She merely felt it would have been prudent to have given the matter a bit more thought. But there was little to be done about it now, and Shade knew herself well enough to know that she would not renege on the contract.

She would find the Prince’s killer and bring him back to Kilinshire, just as she had promised.

Then, she thought, I’m taking a vacation. With a thousand gold falcons in her purse, that vacation might just last the rest of her life. But first, there was business to take care of, and the first matter of the day was to meet up with Laird.

Taking one last moment to admire the sunrise, Shade bounced to her feet and began tiptoeing across the inn’s roof. She moved quickly and carefully. Her footfalls were quiet and she kept herself crouched low. While most of the city was still stirring, there were always a few people out and about. Years of experience had taught her that people rarely took the time to look up, but she preferred not to risk being seen.

She was impulsive, not foolish.

When she reached the edge of the roof, she paused. The Fool’s Fiddle was a full storey taller than any of the neighbouring structures, and while the streets below appeared empty, Shade knew that could change in an instant. Determined to avoid climbing down to street level, she eyed a rope that stretched from the inn down to one of the shops across the street. It appeared to have been in place for sometime, but when Shade tested it she found it was still strong. From the rusted, iron clips that were fastened at even intervals, she assumed the rope was used to hang decorative lanterns during the festival seasons of Midsummer and Wintergalia.

She cared little about why it had originally been strung. At the moment, it would serve her own purposes well. After checking that her clothing and concealed knives were all secure, she gripped the rope firmly and pushed off.

The roof betrayed her.

At the last moment, one clay shingle came loose. Shade was never in any danger of falling— she secured herself easily enough—but when the shingle hit the cobbled road below, it shattered loudly, drawing the attention of a guard who happened to be emerging from the inn at that exact moment.

Ashes and embers!

“You there!” he shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting away from you,” Shade muttered to herself. She reached out and, using all the strength of her upper body, swung along the length of rope, toward the opposing rooftop.

“Halt!” shouted the guard. “In the name of Sir Vander, I order you to halt!”

Shade ignored him. Moments later, she was bounding across the rooftops again, but the ear-piercing blast from the guard’s whistle told her it was too late. The alarm was sounded and the rest of his comrades would be on the lookout. Fortunately, the sun was still low enough that the streets remained cast in shadow. The guard could not have seen her clearly.

Still, she was not about to take any chances.

As in most cities, the rooftops of Kilinshire were not swarming with people, and that made her conspicuous by her presence upon them. It was not a comfortable situation, but it was a familiar one. After her mother’s death, several years of Shade’s life had been dictated by circumstances that were beyond her control. Against all odds, she had managed to claw her way out of that life, but she had never forgotten its lessons. She could still hear the words of the old woman who had caught her stealing bread one morning.

If you don’t like your situation, girl, change it.

Before the disaster with the treacherous shingle, Shade had intended to keep to the rooftops. Now she was determined to escape them. She just needed to find the right place. Keeping low, she ran for several more blocks, until she caught sight of two guards patrolling one of the main streets. They held their long spears defensively before them and, by the way their heads darted from left to right and back again, they had the appearance of men who did not know whether they were hunting, or being hunted.

She shadowed them for a minute, straining to hear what they were saying. When it was clear that their voices were too hushed for her to hear, she raced ahead, seeking some means of abandoning the rooftops, without alerting the guards to her presence.

After a few moments, she found it.

With a faint smile, Shade untied her hair, letting it cascade over her shoulders. She loosened her shirt, pinched her cheeks and assumed the flirtatious identity of a woman she called Keeva. She glanced back over her shoulders to make sure that the guards were still walking down the street. Satisfied, Keeva allowed herself to drop down into a nearby alleyway—landing directly in front of a startled young man.

Though he was tall and strong, he had a boyish face, touched by only the faintest hint of a beard. He wore simple clothes and the long, flour-covered apron of a baker. She hardly noticed. For one heart-stopping instant, Shade fell out of her assumed identity. In that moment, all she could see were his eyes. They had gone wide with surprise at her sudden appearance, but there was a gentle strength there too, a nobility that reminded her so much of another man, from another time—a man she had come to love, and in so doing very nearly destroyed.

“What—“ the baker started to say, causing her to snap back to attention. Putting all hesitation behind her, Keeva reach up, wrapped her arms around the stranger’s neck and kissed him.

The shock of her lips pressed suddenly against his own nearly caused the man to stumble backward. Keeva caught him, ran her fingers through his hair and pulled his head down to whisper in his ear. “Don’t say a word,” she commanded, pressing the tip of a knife between his ribs. “Do you understand?”

The man nodded.

“Good,” Keeva smiled sweetly. “Now kiss me. And make it convincing.”

He hesitated before leaning forward. When their lips came together, it was a tentative meeting. He was so gentle and cautious that she wondered if he had ever kissed a woman in his life. She did not have time to instruct him. The guards were approaching now and she needed this exchange to appear genuine. She grabbed his hair again, pulled him close and kissed him deeply. After another brief moment, all hesitation vanished and the baker was kissing her back, pulling her close in the crook of one strong arm just as the two guards came into view.

As anticipated, they paused Keeva chose that exact moment to break off the kiss. Her knife slid back into the concealment of her clothing and she ran one finger playfully down the baker’s chest.

“I’m going to turn away now,” she whispered. “If you want to live, be sure to play along.” She smiled again, as if their kiss was some shared secret, then turned toward the guards, gasping loudly in mock surprise when she saw them.

“Goodness,” Keeva said sweetly. “You gentlemen startled me.”

“Apologies, miss,” responded one of the guards. He was taller than his companion, with a thick, black beard.

“Is everything alright?” asked the baker.

“Everything’s fine,” said the other guard, whose clean-shaven face was a stark contrast to his companion’s. “Just looking for some idiot running across the rooftops. Say, Talborn, aren’t you getting married soon? This sure doesn’t look like Andrea to me.”

“Yeah, well…” stammered the Baker. “You see…”

“I was just giving Talborn a few pointers,” interjected Keeva. “He’s a nice enough fellow, but he needs to learn that his Andrea is more than just a piece of dough. Isn’t that right, darling?”

“Ummmm… of course.”

The guards laughed. “Well don’t let Andrea catch you taking lessons. She’d beat you half to death with your own rolling pin.”

“I’d appreciate if you kept this to yourself,” said Talborn sheepishly.

“We never saw a thing!” winked the bearded guard. Then he and his companion sauntered away, laughing between themselves. Keeva turned back to the baker, whose cheeks were burning cherry-red.

“Sorry about all that,” she said.

“Who areyou?”

“Why is that the first thing everyone asks?” Keeva responded.

“On second thought,” said Talborn. “I think I’d rather not know. You’re the one they were looking for, aren’t you?”

“Handsome and smart. Sounds like Andrea’s a lucky girl.” She reached into her purse and withdrew a single silver wren, which she pushed into the baker’s hand. “I’ll be off now, but take this for your trouble. Buy your girl something pretty.”

“Please don’t take offence, miss, but you’ve got to be the strangest woman I’ve ever met. Would you really have stabbed me?”

Keeva raised one eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“I think you would, and if you don’t mind me saying, I hope we never meet again.”

“Me too, Talborn. I’m not the sort of woman you want to make a habit of crossing paths with. Congratulations on your nuptials. Be good to your wife.”

With nothing else to be said, she promptly left the baker and the alley behind. The two guards were already well down the street, and while she was confident that she had already identified herself as a flirtatious but otherwise harmless woman, she still deemed it prudent not to follow them. She was not sure what other thoughts she might have put in their minds. The morning had already proven more adventurous than planned, and she had no desire to fight off unwanted amorous attention.

Instead, Shade put her back to the sun and followed a roundabout path toward the western part of the city, where Laird would be waiting for her.