An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

West to Wellan Shade

After meandering for some time through the streets of Kilinshire, Shade found Laird at the stable yards. Located just outside the city walls, the stables were an extensive complex of barns and covered hitches, all of which were overseen by the local stablemaster. The mercenary was gnawing mindlessly on a stick of dry, spiced beef while he brushed down his big, chestnut stallion. He was clad in common, well-work clothes and, rather than carrying his beloved axe on his back, he wore a simple short sword at his hip. It was a guise that Shade had devised herself—arming him enough to convince brigands that he was capable of defending himself, without drawing undue attention. Still, she could make out the general shape of his axe concealed beneath the saddle bags and blankets. If the need arose, he would be able to reach it easily enough.

“There you are,” he said as she approached, a mischievous glint in his eye. “I thought you told me to meet you here just after sunrise.”

“I was delayed,” Shade responded.

Laird chuckled. “By the city guard, by chance?”

“In a manner of speaking. Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason,” shrugged the big mercenary as he finished grooming his mount and packed the brush away. “But after two years, I’ve learned that when I hear an alarm go off, I should probably just assume the worst.”

“That is completely unwarranted,” Shade snapped with a level, disapproving stare. While Laird’s talents were neumerous—he was strong, intelligent, uncommonly loyal for a mercenary and exceptionally skilled with both his sword and axe—she had never warmed up to his brutish sense of humour. She supposed that it was a testament to their partnership that he felt comfortable making her the butt of his jokes, but that did not make them any more palatable.

Laird returned her stare with a crooked grin. “But from the look on your face, it’s entirely worth it. Besides, by the time we see each other again, I’m sure you will have forgiven me. So what happened?”

Shade shrugged. “A roof tile gave way underfoot. Wouldn’t normally be an issue, but it shattered when it hit the ground and drew the attention of a guard who just happened to be coming out of the inn at that exact moment.

“Another spot of bad luck, there.”

“As if I hadn’t noticed. Wasn’t much I could do at that point, so I ran. He raised the alarm.”

“How did you get away?”

“Trade secret, I’m afriad.”

When Laird laughed again, Shade could not help but smile. As infuriating as his sense of humour could be, she had to admit that his jovial spirit could be infectious. “I assume you’ll be wanting your things now?”

“They won’t do me much good if they go all the way to Wellan with you.”

“I don’t suppose they would,” replied Laird. “Fortunately for you, I was smart enough not to pack them.” He walked back into the stables, where dozens of tightly bound bales had been stacked into a massive wall of straw. He bent down and pulled on that wall, shifting it just a matter of inches, but causing several of the bales to teeter so precariously that Shade half expected them to come tumbling down on the mercenary’s head. Somehow, they remained in place. A moment later, Laird had managed to push them all back into place. When he returned, he was carrying a bundle wrapped in a grey, woollen blanket. He pulled back the covering to reveal Shade’s pack.

“Thank you,” she said as he handed it to her. After a brief check on a few key items, she slipped it onto her back, securing it with a strap that wrapped tightly around her hips.

“Do you have that list for me?” asked Laird.

Shade nodded, producing a small piece of paper from one of her hidden pockets. It had been carefully folded and inscribed with everything she needed. Mostly, that included the replenishment of a few supplies that were not readily available throughout the Realm—poisons, a few exotic herbs and a particularly interesting stone that she had happened upon some years ago. She also wanted a few additional items that would help her slip into several of identities that she had not worn in years.

“Here,” she said, offering him the folded page.

“Thanks,” Laird replied, accepting the list and tucking it inside his brown leather vest. “Standard procedure, I assume?”

“Of course.” It was encoded using a simple system that she had worked out a number years ago. If a stranger happened upon the list, they would see it as nothing more than an inventory of common household items. Even if they knew it to be more than it appeared, it was unlikely that anyone would be able to read it. There was only one other person in the Realm who knew her personal cypher, and the last she had heard of him he was miles away, living in the capital.

Where she would be headed in a few hours.

“Keyword?” asked Laird

“Check the second drawer of the boudoir. What you’re looking for is small and yellow.”

He grunted. “Two years ago, I didn’t even know what a boudoir was.”

“I’m educating you.”

“Lucky me. Say, have you figured out how you’re going to find your mark?”

“I’ve given it some thought.”

“But no plan yet?”

“You might call it a work in progress,” said Shade.

“I thought as much.” He scratched mindlessly at his short red beard. It had been a habit of his for as long as she had known him. Usually, it meant there was something he wanted to say, but he was unsure of how to breach the subject.

“What is it, Laird?” Sometimes, all he needed was a bit of encouragement.

“Well,” he said hesitantly, “I’ve been thinking. We don’t have much to go on, do we? I mean, I know you’re good at this sort of thing, but don’t you think it might be easier to find a hare in the cornfield?”

“Could be,” she conceded.

“So I’ve been thinking. What if you got some help?”

“What kind of help?”

“Well we could talk to the Finder—“

“Absolutely not!” Shade snapped. The words came out harsher than she had intended them, but that was a reflection of her feelings on the matter. The Finder was a mystic of sorts, a man whose name had been forgotten, and who had cultivated an uncanny ability to uncover the location of items and even people. If the stories were to be believed, his scrying had never been proven wrong, though the information he provided was rarely as straightforward as it appeared. Shade understood why Laird might be drawn to the idea of seeking the mystic’s aid. But that aid was never given freely; with the finder there was always a price—and it rarely involved mere gold.

Shade had paid that price once. She was not prepared to do so a second time.

“It was just a thought,” Laird grumbled defensively.

“And a damned foolish one! Wait—“ She placed one hand gently on his forearm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just that the Finder is not to be trusted. He knows more than he should, and his deals seem to have a way of coming back on you when you least expect it.”

“Have you—?”

“Once,” said Shade, very quietly. “And it cost me one of the most important things in my life. Never again, Laird. Never again. I’ll complete this contract and find the mark, but I’ll do it on my terms, and that starts in Relen’ayar. If I don’t find anything there, then I’ll just have to look somewhere else. If half of what I’ve heard of the victim is true—” Shade was careful not to name the Prince aloud—“than he probably left a trail a mile wide. I’ll find it.”

“I just thought—“

“I know what you thought. And I appreciate it. I really do. It’s just not an option. But don’t worry. We’ll manage. Now you’d best be off. How long do you think it will take you to reach Wellan?”

“If the weather holds, I’ll make it inside a week.” Laird vaulted gracefully on to his horse’s back. “A day the take care of affairs there and then several more to make the Capital by boat.”

“Good. I’ll spend a few days nosing around the city. I still have some old contacts there. Assuming they haven’t all cut each other to ribbons by now, they should be able to help.”

“You know I still don’t understand you’re change of heart about this. I’ve always said you could make a killing in the Capital—pardon the expression. Yes, I know, things change, but one day, you’re going to have to tell me what those things are.”

“I will,” said Shade. “Someday. I promise.”

“That will have to do I suppose,” Laird responded, turning his mount and urging the horse into a slow walk. “I’ll see you in less than a fortnight.”

“Stay safe.”

“You too.” With a final nod, he snapped his reins. His horse responded by breaking into a trot, and then to a brisk canter. Laird waved once more as he set off down the road that led west out of Kilinshire. Shade did not bother to watch him go. The mercenary knew how to take care of himself, and she had never been prone to sentimentality. Now that he was on his way, she had other matters to attend to before leaving the city—starting with a visit to Alys Vander.

Shade planned to have a very pointed conversation with the Lordling’s wife.

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