The forest floor was a blur beneath my feet. They barely touched the ground as I pushed my already fit body to its limits, driven by my duty. . .and by my fear. I carried as little with me as possible. A maroon leather vest, a pair of soft skin tight breeches, and a pair of shin height moccasin style boots. My belt carried the sheath to one small dagger. Aside from a leather band around my forehead, I had nothing else.
Brief flashes in the canopy above told me that the sun was nearing the ground. I probably only had an hour left. I ran faster, dodging around moss covered trees and memorized dips in the wet and sunken ground. My senses were tuned for everything. A rustle. A flash. A print in the soft dirt. Anything that might tip me off to a second presence, but as nothing seemed to present itself, I ran headlong through the forest on the faint dirt path.
Gradually, unfamiliarities gave way to more recognizable landmarks. An overgrown clump of bushes. A tree with one long jagged scar. Two rotting and wet logs lying on their side. These were encouraging appearances and I unconsciously began to scan the breaks between trunks of trees, although I knew I would not see anything until I started the ascent uphill.
The hill came soon enough and slowly, by degrees, began its rise. I didn't shy away, but instead enjoyed the challenge and pushed myself harder. The hill got steeper and I ran harder. It became steeper still and I bounded up as fast as my body would allow me. Very soon, my heart was drumming heavily in my chest and my breath, which had already been labored, became great gasps for air enough to stabilize my body.
The trees did not stop with the coming of the hill, but clung strongly to slope and pushing through the soil where they could. Once, through the great green foliage I glimpsed the sky and was a bit alarmed to see that there was no sun in the sky and, worse, the very first and most ambitious of the stars were beginning to wink into existence. I ignored the burning pain in my calves and thighs and began to rhythmically breathe as deeply and fully as I could to better make use of my lungs.
Then, like a ghost in a dark room, two giant slabs of solid granite appeared in the upward climb. There was a narrow crevice between the two mountainous shapes, wide enough only for three men to stand shoulder to shoulder, and it was this that I entered in to. With my entrance into the crack I left the trees and bushes behind and the ground leveled out, visibly becoming more beaten. Less vegetation and more dirt and tracks. I could also see the now black streak of sky above me, though the tunnel was much darker than the outside had been. My rapid footfalls echoed in the lonely channel, which almost made me turn and look behind me to make sure I was not being followed, but I shook off the feeling and continued.
Finally, blessedly, the fissure in between the slick gray rock curved left and abruptly ended. The end consisted of one giant trunk. The trunk had once been a tree, standing easily hundreds of feet above the ground. The branches and leaves had been sawed off and a large portion of the bark stripped to reveal the creamy white wood underneath. The roots had also been removed to leave the bottom flat. Ten men could not have wrapped their arms around the whole of it.
As I pounded closer, I glanced at its visible surface. One inch deep marks marred the wood, clustered toward the bottom and slowly dispersing as it gained altitude. For fifteen feet trenches destroyed the surface until only the smallest and weakest of scratches made it above the others. I slowed to a stop in front of the colossal tree and panted heavily for several seconds. When my heart had stopped pounding quite so frantically and when my breathing slowed slightly I glanced behind myself once and, satisfied that I hadn't been followed, filled my lungs once more to shout upwards.
"I wish to gain passage to the city!"
A long pause and for a moment I thought I was too late and then with a grinding of wood on stone and the clink of unseen chains, the tree lifted up moving slow inches at a time. A couple minutes passed before it had risen enough feet for me to pass underneath. I traversed the fifteen foot distance under the tree and appeared on the other side. Immediately a forearm wrapped around my chest and a cold blade appeared at my throat.
"What business do you have in Anultic?" a voice behind me asked.
"I bear a message for Madam Corblin of Noon House," I replied with recited calm. I also gestured at best I could at my forehead.
A solider of perhaps twenty-five years appeared in my field of vision and the steel dagger at my throat was removed. He studied momentarily the runes printed into the leather headband tied around my head and nodded his approval. "Fair enough, runner. Be on your way." I nodded my thanks as the soldier resumed his post next to the tree and trotted away.
I was in the same tunnel, but now I could see the opening at the end, lit by torches and lanterns. I surfaced from its oppressive darkness and looked around. The courtyard was roughly circular with buildings set wall to wall all the way around the very large ring. The exception was the continued pathway on the other side and two exits to the left and the right. In the center of the courtyard was a fountain made of gray granite that was carved into the shape of a giant log with an ax embedded partway into the wood. Dark had come and, to compensate, it was lit with bright lanterns that cast yellow and purple lights on the ground and wholly illuminated every surface. Most were hanging above our heads from lines strung across from rooftop to rooftop. The uniqueness of the city showed itself best here. Fifteen miles in front of me sat the Sliding Mountains. They were special all by themselves because of their very nature. No vegetation grew on the Sliding Mountains because they consist of solid granite. It's impossible to climb them because most of the mountains are sharp and flat. Therefore, when an over-heavy slab of granite breaks away, they slide across the surface and it can be heard for miles in every direction. These act as the cities greatest protection. Behind me sat the two staggeringly large stone structures through which I had just passed. These two pieces of granite had broken off, presumably centuries ago, and had created a natural U formation. Both stretched for long miles in either direction, creating a practically impenetrable wall between the city and the forest. To my left, the granite curved farther down, connected back with the mountain, and sealed the east side of the city. Going to the west however, the Granite Mountains stopped. The result left two open spaces. One was the crevice that was the only true entrance to the city. The other had been sealed away by years and years of forest growth and protected the cities most vulnerable flank. It was a city built for the sole purpose of protecting its people and had never been breached.
Even before I had left the tunnel, I could smell meat being slow cooked somewhere, the sweat of horses mingling with the acrid scent of leather oil, the smoke of a forge as a blacksmith pounded metal to iron, and the sharp scent of ale. The sounds were just as overwhelming as people hassled with vendors for better bargains, animals made known their distress, and children laughed and chased after one another. Even as I entered, a small pair of siblings, a boy and a girl, darted in front of me giggling and yelling as they played their games. A group of boys, my age by the look of them, were gathered around a small open wagon nearby and kept shoving a smaller and more obviously shy boy towards a group of girls who were sitting on the edge of the fountain. They kept laughing loudly as the shy boy kept returning with red ears and his eyes pointed at the ground. A group of men were making room for long wooden tables to be set up with benches and placings.
The dominating feature of the courtyard, however, had nothing to do with the actual courtyard, but what was behind it. A looming gray granite castle stood on the opposite end, foreboding with the gray mountains framing its tallest peaks. It was vaguely pyramidal in shape, beginning with shorter walls and building its way up to the very tallest tower which was set in the center. The front wall curved around the courtyard, creating ramparts and enclosing the courtyard at the same time. Four other towers stood above the walls at each corner and the path led directly underneath the portcullis and into the city. The castle had purple banners hung over every tier and flags were flying sunny yellow flags. Servants and citizens of all kinds were pouring out of the castle carrying baskets of food and jugs of drinks.
I smiled at the happy atmosphere and a piece of me wanted to stay longer, but I ignored these urges and began running once again. People parted before me as they saw my red vest and I made quick progress out of the courtyard and under the castle. A green grassy expanse covered the distance between the city and the castle. Dirt replaced cobblestone and bushes and lanterns lined the trail. Even more people, most dressed in nice vests, tunics, and dresses, were making their way to the courtyard. Servants were setting up tables on the outside as well, underneath trees hung with even more lanterns and around bonfires set on the soft green grass. Eagerness filled my chest as I took in the all the activity and it made my original weariness feel less dominating.
The city is broken into several parts. Chief among these are the Noon District, Midnight District, Morn District, and Dusk District. There are also two working districts; the Sawmill District and the Granite District, wood and granite. It is these two commodities that make living in Anultic worth it. Worth the danger.
I knew the city well and quickly found my way to the Noon District. Buildings changed noticeably from simple and well built to grandly carved with columns and large front yards. I thought of the memorized address, turned left at an intersection, and ran until I found the end of the road. I found a large house made of beautifully carved exotic wood and stone. It had a garden for a front yard and a knee high stone fence. I walked up to the double doors and banged the knocker and stood back and waited. A servant opened the doors and bowed to me.
I nodded my head politely. "I seek Lady Corblin. I have a message for her."
The servant bowed again and beckoned me inside. I breathed steadily to slow my heartbeat as I followed him and tried to reposition my hair. He led me through halls and up one staircase and to a large wooden door. He opened it without and word and closed it behind himself. I waited patiently and hoped my feeble attempts at neatness had succeeded.
Finally the door was reopened, I entered and the servant left, closing the door behind him with a creak and a soft thud. The room was well decorated and comfortable, with a desk in the center and the walls adorned with forest scenes frozen on paintings and fogged mountains standing guard over grassy valleys.
A woman was behind the desk and when I entered she stood and waited for me to bow to her. She was not especially tall, and I stood an easy head above her. Her hair was auburn and artfully placed in wide curls at the back of her head. She wore a blue dress that had gold trimming and flared at the bottom. She was thin, very young, and extremely beautiful.
"Greetings, Lady Corblin."
"Hello, runner. You traveled well?"
"Well enough, My Lady."
"Good. You have for me a message?"
"I do." The noblewoman indicated for me to come closer and pulled from her desk three silver coins which she placed in my palm.
I cleared my throat. "Sir Lendle of Tre'bon sends his greetings and good news. As of last week a new king has been chosen for the throne of Tre'bon. He goes by the name of Bronx and is of no known descent." Her eyebrows went up at this. "Sir Lendle would like to stress that King Bronx is like no king that Tre'bon has ever had. He has abolished The Day of Fifteen Swords," her expression became one of shock. "And has made the former prince his Commanding General. King Bronx himself sends his best to the nobles of Anultic and hopes to refortify the allegiance between our two countries."
Lady Corblin sat down in her chair and stared into the distance. "That is great news indeed. Tre'bon. . .a new king. Wonderful news. After so long." She appeared to be in shock. Suddenly she addressed me. "This will change everything, you know. Our importing and exporting of goods, our politics, our battle readiness. Everything."
"I understand, My Lady. It is quite astounding."
She sat in silence after that and stared at her hands, apparently thinking. I was technically not dismissed until she approved, so I stood and waited for her to say something.
I was on the verge of clearing my throat and making a polite-as-possible exit when she looked up at me. "Do you have any other duties tonight, runner?"
"I do not, My Lady. I've made my only delivery."
"Are you planning on attending the festivities?"
"I am, My Lady. As soon as I returned to the Service to pay my dues and change my clothes."
"What is your name, runner?"
"Dheul, My Lady."
"Well Dheul, it seems I am in need of an escort. I believe I have finished my work here and now I am late. Would you do me the honor of leading me first to the Service so that you may fulfill your duties and then to the courtyard to entertain ourselves?"
I bowed respectfully, briefly wondered how bad I smelled, and said, "It would be my honor."
She smiled bright white teeth at me, walked around her desk, and hooked her left arm around my right.
"Let us be on then."
We made quick work of the city as we both knew our way to the Service. The roads were less crowed than they had been going to Lady Corblin's house. Most people were preparing for the celebration and had already made it either into the courtyard out just outside the castle walls.
The Service is a massive looming building, several stories high, set at the crossroads leading to the Sawmill District and the Granite Districts. It's has many purposes and they are all provided for the city, thus the name Service. It is separated into sections because of its sheer size, some less important than the others, but important nonetheless. The most important sections, however, are the medical, blacksmith, employment, imports and exports management, and defense sections. I am with none of these; however, as I am with the Postal Section that ensures messages of all kinds are delivered to wherever it is that they must go. It's a Secondary section as opposed to the Primary sections. It was the Postal Section that we entered in to once we had made our way through the winding hallways. There I found Bligg, the elderly and kind old man that was Head of the Postal. Lady Corblin and I entered his stuffy office. He looked up from his desk, started as he saw the noble on my arm, and made a quick and clumsy bow.
"My Lady," he said. "I was unaware that you were coming or perhaps I would have been a bit more prepared." He gestured around his office which was dusty and stacked high with loose papers and leather bound volumes.
Lady Corblin bowed lightly. "It is of no consequence, sir."
He smiled good naturedly and then turned his attention to me. I handed him one of the three coins that I had with me and he took this and set it in a padlocked chest in the corner, opening it with a key around his neck. He sat back down at his desk and took out ink, a feather quill, and a sheet of paper.
"And the message, Dheul?"
I recited my message as Bligg copied it down as I spoke.
When I had finished he said, "And your time?"
I calculated for a moment and said, "About seven hours, sir, from the edge of the forest."
He nodded approvingly as he copied this down in a leather bound volume. "Excellent job, as usual. And I trust your travels were safe?" he asked.
"Safe as always, sir."
"Good, good. No other news that I should be aware of then? I will not keep you any longer. I will call upon your services as the need arises, Dheul." He bowed to Lady Corblin who had watched the proceedings quietly. She bowed back and said, "Good bye, Master Bligg."
Lady Corblin followed by my side without putting her arm around mine. I was almost worried by this, and then realized that now that we were alone she had dropped most of her regality. She walked easier, let her arms swing naturally, and seemed less stiff. I felt myself relax.
We went down several flights of stairs and, in fact, there was only one story below the Lodging Section and that was a storage basement. The hallway was lit well enough with torches, but the level is overall a gloomy and cold place. I stopped at the end, where two sets of double doors stood. One led to the boy's side and the other to the girls.
"My Lady, if it pleases you, I will only be a moment inside and thought you might prefer to remain here." I said it politely to avoid offense, but Lady Corblin waved me off as if I was being silly.
"Please go on. I do not mind waiting a while."
I bowed lightly and pushed open one of the double doors. The room was lit on the opposite wall with a long thin strip of window. The window rested on the ground from the outside, but from the inside you had to be able to stretch twelve feet to touch the sill. The window was not paned and it was this that kept the room fresh and cool during the summer. The room was filled with bunks. Top to bottom and side to side. Ladders were fixed to the walls and to bed posts so that boys could get to the much higher levels. Hammocks were strung in the corners and only thin walkways were left to walk between the beds to make the most of the limited space.
The room was almost completely empty and it was easy finding my own bed. It was set on the wall under the window and I had the fourth bed up. I didn't climb to it, however, but instead went to the cabinet style shelves at the end of the bed. I opened the fourth door and sorted through my few belongings to find a white tunic, a pair of black breeches, my only other pair of boots, and a maroon vest. The extra clothes had been issued to me by the Postal and I put them on now. I removed my headband and dagger and left them in my shelf.
I left quickly and was happy to find Lady Corblin waiting patiently. "You look different without your uniform, Dheul."
I smiled. "I feel better too."
It was not long before we were once again outside the Service and walking through the city. Nobody walked the streets now and when we exited the last building and entered the wide expanse of grass almost completely alone.
That only lasted for a short time. A few hundred yards away, thousands of people were merrily singing and dancing around massive burning piles of wood. Lady Corblin wrapped her arm around mine again as we approached.
"Where will I be taking you, my lady?" I asked.
"I will be going to the castle first. I am to attend a banquet with the king and the other court officials."
I nodded. "Of course, my lady."
We were silent as we passed vendors selling warm food and decorative party items. There seemed to be no end to the crowd as most were moving in time with music or laughing with friends. Once I saw that a set had been raised near the road and a group of performers were acting out a play while a sizeable crowd watched from the ground. I also saw a group of men that looked like they were preparing something and I suspected that their preparations meant fireworks. In another place I saw a man who seemed to be performing magic tricks with a group of wide eyed children. Even as I watched, the magician expertly pulled a frog from his glove and snapped his fingers to make it a bouquet, which he handed to a little blond girl. I could not help but laugh when the bouquet turned back into a frog and the little girl squealed and ran away.
Lady Corblin chuckled. Her laugh was like wind chimes. "Enjoying yourself already?"
I looked down at the beautiful girl on my arm and it came to me that I was getting many a jealous glance from other young men. I smiled again. "I suppose I am. I love the Ides of October. It's my favorite holiday."
She smiled back at me and we entered the tunnel under the castle. "I would have to agree with you. Fall is my favorite time of year."
The Ides of October. What one might call a bitter-sweet occasion. It is a three day celebration of Anultic that remembers the three days of calm before the night of the full moon. It is meant to be a happy holiday so that during the days to follow, the people are less uneasy.
We exited the tunnel and entered the courtyard to find that tables that had been set and piled with food. Hundreds of people were eating and hundreds more were filing out and back into the green expanse to celebrate.
We wove our way through the tables and took the left exit which led into a series of corridors. Few people were in here as well, the majority being servants that were replenishing the food in the courtyard. I had only made the trip into the castle on one occasion to deliver a message to a courtier who worked for the king, so now Lady Corblin guided me and we turned to a wooden door on the left. It had two guards stationed on either side.
"I am Lady Corblin of Noon House. I have been invited to the king's banquet?" The guards inclined their heads to me and bowed to Lady Corblin and opened the door.
It led directly to a stone staircase and we ascended it quickly surpassed numerous levels until we stopped and turned and walked down a hallway. I was, for the most part, lost, but Lady Corblin seemed to know her way. Truthfully, it made me feel like a lousy escort, but I kept my silence and my dignity as best as possible.
"Have you ever been in the castle, Dheul?"
"Only once, My Lady. I delivered a message to a courtier."
"Oh? Would you happen to remember her name?"
I paused, considering for a moment. "I believe her name was Cornelia. Lady Cornealia."
Lady Corblin smiled. "That is my mother."
I recalled the woman, who had been a bit passed middling age and decided that there was some resemblance between the two. I could also think of nothing to say that would seem intelligent and decided on silence.
Then she asked a question that I had hoped to avoid. "What of you? Where are your parents?"
I must have stayed silent for too long because she stopped in the middle of the hallway and faced me.
"I apologize Dheul. That was rude of me. I should not have asked such a personal question."
I shook my head and took her arm again, leading her forward once again. "You could not have known." I shrugged nonchalantly. "My father used to work in the Granite District. He died in an accident. I do not remember him as well. My mother died two years ago. She was aged beyond her years and contracted pneumonia." I felt an ache somewhere deep inside that unhealed piece of my heart that belonged to my mother, but it passed.
Lady Corblin was silent and I felt I should say something else. "But Bligg has been good to me. I get a message at least every week, sometimes more often, depending on the speed and distance of the trip."
Lady Corblin smiled. "Then I am happy for you." She gestured at a set of double doors.
"This will be it." A set of guards stood at each side. Lady Corblin gave them her name and they bowed to her.
Lady Corblin faced me. "Thank you, Dheul, for accompanying me. I enjoyed you company."
I bowed respectfully. "Likewise, My Lady." I paused and then in a fashion unbecoming one of my rank I asked, "Perhaps I will see you again during the festival?" I posed the statement as a hopeful question and she smirked at me.
"I would be delighted." Then she turned and left into the room.