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This came about that same weekend as "Monsters R People 2" and is a radically different story. Marian Zimmer Bradley rejected it outta' hand 'cuz it's told in present tense. I kinda' figured the subject matter warranted that choice: the main character being a foot messenger by trade, she lives in the moment. But <sigh> anyway... There are glimpses here of what became my style... and plenty of influence from my literature studies at the time...
Cheryl A. Scott 3,600 words
340 S. 46th Street
Springfield, OR 97478
by C.A. Scott
Feet, clad in soft sandals and a thick coat of mud, beating a steady pace, swiftly, through the old wet leaves and moss of the forest floor. Breath, clean and heavy, sucking in gulp after gulp of cool, damp air. Eyes, expressionless, continuously moving, looking forward, down, behind. Trees, throwing lengthening shadows, slip past like an endless crowd of dark-cloaked magicians.
Behind her, the muffled chink-chink of an armed man's running footsteps. Ahead, thinning trees as the path joins a main road. Further on, the looming gate tower of Kinney Keep.
Seeing this, she feels a new surge of energy. Safety ahead! She lengthens her stride even more and stretches for the gate, opening her mouth to shout at the gate keeper.
"King’s runner!" she screams in a high, clear voice. "I'm being chased!"
The creaking of the gate is most wonderful music to her ringing ears, and she could almost stop and kiss the three large guardsmen who step through to greet her. Behind her, the armed man has broken off his pursuit and is fading into the darkening woods. The runner makes it past the guardsmen and then slowly comes to a halt. She is surrounded by Kinney's men.
"I carry the royal seal," she pants, turning round to look at each of them in turn. "A message from the king."
The lead guardsman comes forward to take hold of the bag that hangs at her waist. His dark brow is furrowed until he sees the king's insignia on the bag's fastener, then he drops the bag and orders his men away. At a gesture from him, the gate begins to creak slowly shut.
"This message for Master Kinney?" the guardsman asks.
The runner shakes her head. "I ask only runners' rights," she says.
She is taken to the servants' quarters, and a guard leaves her there with a large matronly-looking maid. The woman smiles with round red cheeks as she sits the runner down at an oaken table in the kitchen. The runner eats well, drinks only water, and is thankful to be given a place to wash up and sleep.
Her name is Kenra. She is twenty-six years old, a runner by trade since being given her freedom four years ago. She is one of the best in the business, and that's why she works for the king. A tall woman, she is very slim and flat-chested, quite boyish to look upon. Her voice does not fit her appearance, being quite feminine in tone even though it is loud and clear enough for a man. It is the voice of a messenger, and most messengers are men.
Kenra sleeps with the bag still at her side, her hand resting lightly on its royal fastening. Inside is the message she carries to Lord Raisling. A message so important the king will only allow her this one stop on the way. A message she will risk her life to deliver. She knows not what it says, or even what it is about.
Kenra wakes to darkness. It is still night, but something has brought her out of a deep restful sleep. She lays perfectly still, alert to any sound, her hand now tightly gripping the bag at her waist.
For a long time, there is no sound. Then a slight change of the light, and the almost imperceptible scrape of metal-on-metal. And absolute silence again. Kenra's hand snakes inside her bag, where she finds in addition to the king's message-tube a small dagger, its blade honed to a razor's edge. It lays in her hand like a part of her, and she waits silently in the dark for the cause of the alarms her instincts have set off in her head.
The room is tiny, no more than a cell, and is furnished with only the musty bed and a chair on which lay Kenra's cleaned sandals and tunic. In one corner is the tub she washed in earlier. All of these are no more than dark shapes against the darker background of the stone walls. There is no window, as the room is underground.
Kenra is not surprised when the door slowly creaks open, and she is not caught off guard by the man who enters with blade drawn to use against her. She meets his descending arm with a slice of her own dagger, and before he can retaliate she has slid out of bed and past him to the chair. Catching up her things, she quickly makes for the door and almost gets away unscathed. But just as she reaches to push the door shut, a line of fire is drawn up her long thigh; the man's sword reached her before he can, but she manages to slam the door in his face and drops its bolt into place before he reaches her.
His shouts are muffled, but she knows it won't be long before someone comes to investigate the noise. Kenra has no time to dress, and is off running down the corridor in what she remembers to be the direction of the stairs. She is rewarded with the sight of the torchlit stairway, and ascends by twos to the servents' quarters above. Her bare feet are silent on the cold stone, and she leaves a trail of blood from the long slit on the side of her leg.
As she hurries out the door and into the keep's main yard, her mind is racing. She'd been told that Lord Kinney could be trusted, and now she had been attacked in his very castle! She cannot stay to find out whether this had been a spy – if it were really one of Kinney's men and she stayed she would not have another chance to get away.
The castle is walled, of course, and the only ways out are through three gates, all of which will be guarded. Kenra stops to think and realizes that she is half naked. In the shadowed overhang of a barn, she ducks through the shoulder strap of the royal messenger’s bag and pulls her tunic over her head. Her long black hair gets stuck under the bag's strap when she puts it back on, and she shakes her head to free it while tying a belt around her waist. She ties her sandals on, checks the shallow cut that runs from her knee to her hip, and retrieves her knife before venturing out of hiding.
Only her innate quickness and sixth sense for danger save her, sending her spinning around the corner of the barn when a guard appears across the yard. Peering cautiously around the wall, she determines that he has not seen her (her dark, near-black skin has aided her this time) and decides to hide for a moment inside the barn.
The barn door is unlocked, and she opens it only enough for her own slim form to squeeze in before closing it behind her. There is a mild snort, and a friendly wrinkled face appears over the nearest stall door. It is a female, apparently of egg-laying age, with a long neck and broad shell-back. It whuffles softly at Kenra, and she goes to it and pats its rough gray/green skin.
The huge tortoise accepts her touch, cocking its head to one side and blinking a brown eye. It seems to be the herd leader, so there is no problem with the rest of the mounts in the barn.
Kenra leans against the stall door for a moment, looking around the barn and trying to think of a way out of the castle walls. Her eyes alight upon the tack area, and she smiles. She is suddenly glad that the guard made it necessary for her to hide in the tortoise barn.
The rope looks to be just long enough. Now all she needs is something to tie on the end of it… Her eyes and hands search the shelves and floor until she finds something useful. A fancy harness, reptilian leather inlaid with metal, for a large female tortoise. Its shape and makeup look strong enough to support her weight, at least long enough to get her over the wall. She takes the back door outside into the shadows behind the barn.
Over the wall. This is not as easy as she thought, and she soon wishes she had gloves of some kind. The rope bites into her hands enough to make her forget the pain of her thigh, the knife between her teeth cuts into the corners of her mouth, and her knees bang again and again against the stone wall. By the time she has reached the top, the palms of her hands are bleeding. Again, she checks her thigh. Its bleeding seems to have slowed.
Kenra secures the metal bridle in place on a stone crenel and moves crouched like a beetle (again, she is glad for her night-dark complexion and wardrobe) across the top of the wall. Descent would be much easier without the pain of holding tight to the rope with bleeding hands. Her sandals scuff against the rock wall, so loud she thinks the whole castle must hear it. But no one appears to challenge her, and once on the ground again she quickly melts into the dark woods.
With the effort of climbing and running, Kenra's thigh has resumed its former rate of blood loss, and she realizes she must think of a way to stop it before she takes off. Her tunic is long enough to reach her knees, and she cuts it shorter with her dagger. The rag serves as a bandage, with her belt to hold it in place.
She runs by moonlight, stopping whenever possible at a stream for a sip of water. She makes good time, considering the frequent stops to readjust the bandage on her leg and the constant annoyance of her skinned knees and rope-burned hands. Dawn finds her a few miles away from Lord Raisling's keep.
Perhaps it is fatigue, maybe preoccupation with pain, but Kenra is taken by surprise when a pair of men appear before her on a small stone bridge. It is clear that they have been waiting for her. They are small and wiry, of coastal heritage. Their faces are grim, but they do not move to attack her right away.
Kenra comes to a stop, panting and flexing her blood-crusted hands. She realizes she has been limping.
"You are the king's messenger," says the paler of the two men. His brown eyes look odd with such blond hair. Kenra does not reply; it was not a question.
"If you give us the message we won't have to kill you," the other man says. He is almost as pale as the first, but with dark hair and deep-set eyes.
His words are almost unworthy of even an answer. But Kenra sees a possible opportunity to bargain for her life. "I –" she begins, trying not to sound as weary as she feels. "You know I can never give up a message entrusted to me."
"We are sorry then," says the dark-haired man, drawing his sword with a look of almost sadness. "That message cannot go through."
"Wait, Durk," the blond interrupts. "Let's take her prisoner instead of killing her."
The darker one's eyes do not leave Kenra's face. "What good is she as a prisoner?" he asks.
The blond replies, but Kenra only hears the beginning of it. "We'll have the message and one of the king's..." The runner suddenly feels as though she'd been sitting a while and stood up too fast – she sways and falls unconscious at the men's feet.
She wakes in darkness and finds that she is tied up against a tree with a campfire flickering before her eyes. The next thing she is aware of is the fact that the pain of her wounds is reduced to a solid dull ache. Looking down, she sees that they have been properly cleaned and dressed, and from the look of the bandaging the ooze of blood has stopped.
Near the fire, some ten feet away, the two men are sitting together, speaking in low tones as they pore over a parchment. Kenra recognizes the king’s message tube and her bag on the ground nearby. She is not a curious sort – messengers can’t be – and just listening could be a crime. But a long-buried streak of rebellion in her raises its head, raises her head when the men speak up.
"As we feared," the voice of the blond. "His Royal Highness King Harlan orders the immediate and unceremonious death of Tor Sarkland...’"
"’...for reasons of conspiracy against the crown!’" says the one called Durk. He seems to spit out the words.
The blond sits back, eyes closed, and takes a deep breath. "Well," he said, "at least we've bought Tor some time by stopping this order."
"Let's hope it's enough time, Mendis," Durk says.
"Excuse me," Kenra manages weakly, clearing her throat. The two men are startled, as if they had forgotten she was there. They look at her as though she were some sort of spectre.
"I was wondering if I could have some water," she says, trying to sound as meek as possible and amazed to realize it is so easy.
The blond man, Mendis, comes forward almost immediately with a skin of water that he holds to her lips. Kenra decides that he must be the compassionate one – he had not wanted to kill her and probably took care of her wounds. The water she sips is most welcome even though it is warm and tastes of leather.
"I hope you're enjoying going through my bag," she tells him, "because you'll probably die for it."
Durk's laugh is short but loud. "Not likely," he says.
Kenra frowns at him, more annoyed at herself for becoming intrigued. "Who is Tor Sarkland? Why is he so important?" If she hadn't been tied up, she would have felt the urge to cover her mouth with her hands. Showing an interest in any message she carried was absolutely forbidden!
"Tor's our leader," Mendis says quietly.
Durk now moves forward and leans toward the runner, his face only inches from hers. "Tor Sarkland is the man who's going to kill the king," he snarls, grinning at her.
Kenra only wishes she had a hand free to slap his face for such heresy! Instead, she sits silent and glares at him. He takes this as interest, and begins to speak again.
"Times are changing," he says, his voice ringing in her ears, "The world is changing. And it is time for the people to rule themselves. We are tired of the lords owning all the land, we have had enough of the king's wealth and our poverty, and we are tired of paying taxes to support the aristocracy. There will be no more of their making laws on a whim and taking free service from every merchant. We will bring an end to the king's reign, and it is Tor Sarkland who will lead us to victory!"
Durk's voice has risen to the level of a speech-maker, and now he stands waving a fist in Kenra's direction then turns away. Mendis sits with an enraptured look on his face, and when the spell is broken he blinks and looks at the runner.
"Tor was a sergeant in the king's army," he tells her, his voice kinder and gentler than Durk's. "He's in prison because he refused to enforce the king's laws. The peasants in Eydil didn't have enough grain harvest to give for taxes, and the king's law says to take what they have anyway. Tor would not do so, and Lord Raisling threw him in prison and --" Mendis breaks off here, looking down. His voice is very quiet when he finally finishes his sentence, "-- burned my village."
Kenra looks at him for a long time, then closes her eyes. Soon, she hears him get up and walk away. His story rolls around in her mind with Durk's militant words, and she falls asleep before she is able to make any sense or derive any conclusion from them.
She wakes to a quiet dawn. Durk is nowhere to be seen, but Mendis is stoking the fire near her. Kenra groans, and he turns to look at her.
"I think my wrists are swelling," she grunts, more to herself than him. "The bonds feel tighter..."
Mendis looks almost hurt, his forehead wrinkles as he watches her with narrowed eyes. She squirms against her bonds and winces with the real pain that causes.
"I suppose I could loosen them," he says, and begins to move toward her. Kenra tries to suppress her excitement at this, managing to only look grateful as she readies herself for the move she will have to make. She leans forward with a grimace when he reaches her, tensing the strong muscles in her legs in preparation for action.
Mendis's fingers are nimble at untying the knots that bind her, and his voice is low in her ear. "You have scars here already," he says. "Were you a footracer?"
Kenra's eyes are closed; she ignores his question and concentrates on the feel of the rope around her, then at just the right moment twists, hitting the ground hard on her side and bringing both feet together for a well-placed kick. The kindly peasant doubles over in groaning pain and Kenra scrambles across the campsite to her messenger's bag. She checks its contents as she is running out of the clearing. The most important items remain – her dagger and the king's message. The rebels must have planned to keep it as evidence to justify their treason.
Her hand just closes around the dagger when Durk seems to materialize out of the trees before her. His face is as grim as ever, but he is armed with only a bow. Kenra charges at him before he can draw an arrow. Her dagger precedes her, but he moves to block her arm. This is her only chance to escape – she hears Mendis's pained voice coming up behind her. Before Durk can get a good hold of her she brings a knee up to his groin and clamps her teeth down hard on his arm.
The darker man's reaction is not quite the same as his blond companion’s, but it is enough that Kenra gets one hand free. With it she grabs her knife and slashes out, slicing his tunic across the chest. He jumps back instinctively and lets go of her other hand, and she is off and running. No one can catch her, even injured as she is. It is over, and she is free.
Kenra finds herself a bit disoriented, not sure where she is in relation to Lord Raisling's castle, so she strikes out in a wide curve. The thick woods let in precious little of the early morning light, and she is careful of her footing. The only sounds are the birds in the trees and the steady, though limping, rhythm of her feet. She is barefoot.
She reaches a familiar place. It is the bridge where, yesterday, she met Durk and Mendis. She hurries through the underbrush to the track and over the bridge, smiling now as she reaches the easier footing. Raisling's castle is just barely visible over the tops of the trees ahead.
Kenra races on, heartened by the sight of the stone battlements, but each footfall reminds her of the pain in her thigh. And that reminds her of the pain on Mendis's face when he'd seen her hurting. And when she'd kicked him. Such a mild peasant man. So kind. Not really a revolutionary by nature, but made one by the circumstance. She wonders what has made Durk such a grave man.
Lord Raisling's castle is visible through the trees now; there is a curve in the track up ahead that will take her into full view of the keep. She slows, feeling the blood seeping anew in her two-day-old sword wound. She is walking now, limping with each step, and notices also the blood returning to the bandages on her hands. She stops in the middle of the trail to rest, then goes to lean against a tree. The side away from the trail is more comfortable, she tells herself.
She sits down, groaning, and looks at the bag that now hangs in its usual place at her side. The royal seal, once shining silver, is now somewhat tarnished from handling. She touches it with one finger, trying to rub some of its former life back into the carved face. This task proves difficult, and she moves the bag into her lap to concentrate more on it. The scars on her wrists and ankles are pale lines on her dark brown skin. Her hands move of their own volition to open the bag, then withdraw the rolled parchment from inside it.
"His Royal Highness King Harlan orders the immediate and unceremonious death of Tor Sarkland for reasons of conspiracy against the crown and delinquency of duty..." These words in her own voice, almost a whisper. She turns to look around the tree at the road, toward and away from the castle. There is no one to be seen.
The first tear is the hardest; she can almost feel the sound of the ripping parchment in her stomach. But they are successively easier, until the parchment is nothing but a pile of confetti on the flap of the messenger's bag in her lap.
Treason. Delinquency of duty. Conspiracy against the crown.
Kenra pushes aside the dirt at the base of the tree and drops the bits of parchement there. After covering it with earth, she stands up, wipes her hands, and limps off into the forest. Away from the castle.
Interplanetary Homesick Blues
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|Phobia||A Private War|
|Monsters R People 2|