An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Shadows of War Carvesh

War. Lord Carwell’s words hung over the ravine, like a scythe raised for threshing wheat. A sudden chill filled Carvesh’s chest. The cold fingers of fear close around his heart. His thoughts turned to Anya and his children. How would he keep them safe? Were they even still alive? What had happened in Kervale, while he slept in the peaceful protection of the Alnhome? Blessed Father, let them be safe, he prayed. Mighty Guardian, watch over them now.

War.

It was all wrong. He and Anya had come place to find a simple life, far away from the struggles of Lords, where he could work the land and wrap himself in obscurity. Seeking to distance himself from his former life and the danger it presented, he had felt secure in the knowledge that Nevhen had long been among the safest and most stable of the Realm’s provinces. Nestled in the shadows of the Stonewall, Carvesh had believed that he had found the perfect home.

Now, that life was shattered. There was nowhere left to hide, and the family he had worked so hard to protect was threatened, both in the ways he had always feared, and in others that he had never imagined.

War.

He felt a strong hand touch his shoulder. “I will see you through this.” Carvesh looked up and met Carwell’s blazing emerald eyes. “I don’t know what the future has for you, but I promise you that I will stand by you and your family to the very end, even as I stood by your father. When we return to the village, I will send you back to your farm with some of my men. Pack whatever you can carry on your backs, but leave the rest. Tell any others you meet to do the same. We will be leaving three hours before the sun sets.”

“Leaving? Where will we go?”

“The ultimate goal is Sharenden. If I’m to fight a war, then I would do so behind the walls of my own fortress. Your wife and children will be safe there.”

“What about the rest of the villagers?”

“It’s a big fortress, Carvesh. There is room for all who would come. And if there’s not, we’ll make room.”

“It will be a two week journey by foot, assuming we have favourable weather. We’ll be exposed at night. Even with your men, those shadowbeasts will cut into us.”

Carwell shook his head. “You forget one very simple truth.”

“What’s that?”

“These beasts are strangers in my lands. I know them better, and plan to use that to our advantage. There’s an old keep not far from here. Close enough to make by foot before dark if we hurry.”

“Athan Ridge? It’s a complete ruin.”

“I wouldn’t want to defend it against a lengthy siege, but its walls are thick and its more defensible than the village itself. There are tunnels cut into the hill, with enough room to house the villagers, I should think. Master Taaru,” Carwell said, turning to the minotaur “you said these shadowbeasts have limited intelligence. Can you elaborate?”

“They are keen predators,” replied the minotaur, “but not particularly bright.”

“There is an old keep not far from here. It has been abandoned for centuries. How would they fare against walls of stone?”

“Not well—at least not yet. They usually rely on the strength of numbers, and though their numbers are growing, they are not so great yet. It is the Sjataki that you need to be concerned about. They are both cruel and cunning, and when they command, the jychra obey. But you are right, Lord of the Humans, a fortress—even a ruined one—will provide greater protection for your people.”

“Then it’s settled,” said Carwell. “We make for Athan Ridge. Can you show us to our horses?”

“Of course. Follow me.”

Dozens of questions raced through Carvesh’s mind as he and his companions followed Taaru out of the ravine. What will we do once we reach the keep? It’s still a massive march to Sharenden. Where will we find shelter along the way? Bryswall? Flintmoor? Both were sizeable cities, but neither was heavily fortified and they were both several days away. Any attempt to march to either location would leave them dangerously exposed for several nights. It was not a pleasant thought, but Carvesh was in no mood to argue the wisdom of travelling to Athan Ridge. All he wanted to do was get back to his family.

The small company trudged along in solemn silence. Carvesh could almost sense his companions’ troubled thoughts. Carwell would already be formulating his battle plans, weighing everything he had learned about the shadowbeasts and seeking a means of turning that knowledge against them. Meanwhile, Quelana would already be thinking of the hurt and wounded—both those at her house and those that would invariably fall in the coming days. As for Madik, Carvesh could only assume that he was wondering how to disentangle himself from this mess. He was a hunter, after all. He probably stood a better chance of survival on his own.

True to his word, Taaru led them to a clearing, where they found their horses tied loosely to a few low hanging branches. Carvesh eyed Stepper warily. Though he appeared calm, it was impossible to know how much of the night’s fear was still be burning through the big bay’s veins. As Carvesh approached, however, the horse responded affectionately, neighing softly and pawing at the ground. His coat glistened, as though he had been brushed down, and he appeared to have been well fed. After a quick examination to ensure that the horse had not been wounded, Carvesh scratched Stepper once behind the ear then untied his reins.

“Thank you for your help,” Lord Carwell said to Taaru. “Once we’ve established a clear course of action, I’ll send someone back to you—hopefully Madik, if he’s willing. I mean no offence when I say this, but for the moment I think that the fewer people who know about you, the better.”

“I understand, Lord of the Humans.”

“I’ll have my men start gathering scrap iron, and whatever smithing tools people are willing to sell. I’ll figure out how to get them to you later.”

Taaru nodded. “I will wait in the ravine until nightfall. If I do not hear from you by then, I will follow you to this keep.”

“You can find your way?”

“A village on the move will leave clear signs of its passing. I can find you easily enough, though I will remain hidden until I am able to approach one of you. However, I would speak privately with Carvesh of the Great Oak before he leaves.”

“Very well.” said Carwell, turning to Carvesh. “We’ll wait for you on the Kingsway.” Grasping the reins for Jadoc’s horse, he led Madik and Quelana toward the road. Winter followed several paces behind, passing as silently as a ghost.

“He trusts you,” said Taaru when he was certain that they were out of earshot.

“Who?”

“Your Lord Carwell.”

“I’ve known him since I was a boy. Until recently though, I hadn’t seen him for a long time. He was a friend of my father’s.”

“Was?”

“My father died. A long time ago.”

“My sympathies, Carvesh of the Great Oak. I too lost my Sire. Regardless, the friend of your Father looks to you. He trusts your judgement.”

“I doubt that. Whatever history Aurin and I might have, at the moment I’m more of a thorn in his side than anything else. Besides, I know nothing of war.”

“You handle a sword well enough. But what you know of war is irrelevant. You have the man’s ear. He does not defer to you, but he listens close enough that you may have the opportunity to sway his thoughts. And sway them you must.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Remnant,” rumbled Taaru. “She is who I say she is. Above all, she is dangerous, even locked as she is behind the wardings of the Stonewall. But she will not be content to remain there. I have told you that the jychra are sometimes called Those that Come Before. They are not the Remnants army. They are her vanguard, even as the nightstalkers are her scouts.”

“What would you have me do?” asked Carvesh.

“Speak to your Lord. Convince him of the truth behind my words. Because I promise you this—even if you manage to survive this struggle, even if you drive the jychra back, this is just the beginning. I assure you, Carvesh of the Great Oak, that there are worse things than shadowbeasts beyond the Stonewall, and the Remnant commands them all. You must begin preparing for them. I will guide you in this, so far as I am able, but it will be difficult if your Lord refuses to accept the truth. Speak to him. Make him believe. The future of all people may well depend on it.”

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