The duke leans in, the hood of his brown cape brushing against my cheek. We are alone in his office, the oak door locked, no windows in the thick stone walls. Even so, he whispers as he gives me the Message. I sit with my eyes closed for a minute, then I ask for the message once more, checking each item, making sure that I will be able to recall every word. Seventeen nonsense sentences of sixteen words each. We rise and he grabs my shoulders and pulls me into a hug “The message must get through” he says, “you know the stakes, this could swing the balance of the whole war”
“The message will get through” I reply, woodenly.
I emerge from the cold air of the heavy stone fortress and blink in the sunshine. The day is clear, and I will have no trouble running by moonlight later on this evening. My partner, Marah is waiting for me outside, sitting on a log with his leather running shoes already laced all the way up his shins. He is massaging his right thigh with a smooth stone. He drops into a squat as I approach and begins stretching his hamstrings.
“North or south?” he asks.
“South, down the river Sae, sticking to valleys and woods. There could be scouts in the hills on the way down— “
“Are we going all the way to the capital?” Marah says, bouncing from leg to leg to stretch out his calves.
“Yes”, I say “it should be nightime by the time we leave the woods, we can cross the plains before the capital in darkness”
If we stop only to drink from streams, the whole journey will take around eighteen hours. I feel no need to stretch or warm up, I will start slow and allow my body to limber up on the run. I check the pouches hanging from my waist, tightening the leather straps to ensure they don’t bounce. Each is filled with food I prepared the day prior. Balls of lard, sugar, salt and boiled grains, mixed with ground coaq leaves to keep me alert. Water will be plentiful, so I am only carrying a single leather water pouch in one hand. I am dressed in tight-fitting wool, died a dark green. I have chosen a well-worn pair of leather moccasins, a pair I know well. The pliable soles will allow me to run quietly and grip well on the damp paths.
Finally I bend down a pick a small stone from the ground. If I arrive safely, I will drop it at my destination. A silly tradition.
We run in silence, side by side, our legs synchronizing. Sometimes I feel like we are one four-legged animal. An hour into the run my legs find their rhythm. My whole body feels warm and loose, I can sense muscles gliding smoothly over each other with every step, “like warm eels” I think to myself “in a skin bag”. Soon my mind will be fully detached from the body, free to float aimlessly thinking strange thoughts such as these.
While I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve heard the experience of detaching described like becoming the rider to one’s own body. I am no longer responsible for moving my legs. I merely direct the body left or right, ask it to slow down or speed up. Something else handles the detail, making minute adjustments to ensure my foot lands in the right place, avoiding rocks, slowing down slightly on the uphill, and loosening on the downhill so that we flow down it like a runaway cart, legs spinning in long round arcs.
There is no more discomfort or tiredness after detaching. I check in with the legs occasionally, feeling down with my consciousness and probing, letting the sensations flow back upward, looking for imbalances or foot issues that need to be addressed before continuing. Content that my body is running well, unworried about enemies so close to home, I allow my mind to float upwards now, settling slightly above and behind my own head, and let the memories flood in.
Messengers are only used for the most important of messages, messages that cannot be written down, cannot be entrusted to a pigeon. We carry the message in our minds in coded form, and another messenger’s head carries the key to decode it.
I see us as young men, again. Sixteen years old. My legs were fresh, then. No old injuries to nurse, no need to warm up before a long run. I would pound my body all day, drink and dance all night, and recover on a snatching of sleep. Marah seemed able to do the same on no sleep whatsoever!
That summer the messengers had come through our town. They were staying one week ahead of the military recruiters, taking first pick of the finest runners. “One messenger saves ten-thousand soldiers” they told us. Our town was up in the hills, far inland of the capital city. We were shepherds, Marah and I, not fighters, but nobody can beat a shepard at running long. Most of the young men in the village came to the selection. All were impatient to join the war, protect their home, drive back the invaders. We had only scattered stories from people passing through the village to understand what was going on, but at 16, we didn’t need much prodding to want to fight.
The messenger selection was to be a race. We would start in town and run to Willow Tor, two miles away. Then we were to run back. This would usually be a comfortable 30 minute run for me. One hour after the race started, a gong would sound again, and we would have to make another trip to the tor and back. Another lap would start, on the hour, every hour, until only five runners were left. Only those five would be taken for messenger training.
I remember the first day. It wasn’t my first run in these hills from sun-up to sun-down. I was often up there until night time, rounding up the last stubborn sheep. My body was well used to long slow hours drifting up the hills and flowing back down. The first night was something quite different. I recall thinking everything was lit up as though it were day, and seeing my brother floating along beside me laughing, I saw a flock of sheep running around me, then carrying me up a hill on their backs. Around day-break the hallucinations stopped and were replaced with exhaustion, pain, the unending desire to just…stop. But there were still ten young men dragging themselves to the start every hour. We would arrive at the village with barely five minutes to spare, collapse on the ground, chests heaving, then drag ourselves back to our feet just in time to set out again. Every few laps someone would stay on the ground, another competitor beaten.
Of the second day I remember nothing, I was told afterwards that by 40 hours only four of us were left, but we were too tired to notice, and the messengers wanted to see how good we were, so they let us continue.
I ran for 68 hours, in total. Marah dropped one lap before me.
Five hours into the run, we pause for a drink. The river becomes wide and shallow here, rushing noisily along over the rocky river bed. I remove my shoes and wade into the water, placing my feet carefully on the slippery rocks. The cool water numbs my swollen red feet and some of the fatigue drops away. The sky above is only visible as pricks of light through the dense tree canopy. A cool breeze brushes through the forest and the trees sway and murmur. I fill my water pouch and drain it, feeling to clear water run down my throat, a line of cold all the way to my stomach.
Marah wades in deep with a laugh and sits down in the freezing water, letting it run all over his legs. He sits there for a few minutes, letting his head loll back as he looks up at the trees above, then his eyes go wide and he puts his finger to his lips, and points behind me. A deer is watching us from the other side of the river, ears pricked up, nose trembling softly. We hold our breath and it watches us for a few more heartbeats before turning and bouncing off through the trees.
“He’ll go thirsty because of us!” says Marah, “do you remember when we would chase those deer up in the mountains?”
“I remember you managing to catch a stag once, and it kicking you in the face!”
After being chosen we were taken high into the mountains for training, even further from the front lines. We never saw fighting or wounded soldiers. I hadn’t yet seen friends die, seen whole villages burnt to ash, seen our people in chains — it was peaceful in the mountains in spring, surrounded by the birds and the bright fresh flowers and new-born lambs — memory drills, tactics, navigation, foraging, evasive maneuvers, geography, and of course running. The endless running.
Every morning we woke at dawn for an easy two hour run, staying away from major climbs. After, we would eat and take class. In the afternoon we took a nap in preparation for the second run: hard running, drills, climbs and descents. We were spending up to 20 hours a week running and most of the recruits simply fell apart.
After a month, only one in five of the original recruits were still in training, the rest had been sent back home to join the local legions. The messengers weren’t only the best due to the constant running, the constant running also ensured that only the best survived. We were all expected to be seasoned runners before arriving, there simply wasn’t time to start gently and work up to long hours on our feet.
I had rolled my ankle one afternoon combing down a stony descent and thought I was done for. I could maybe miss one or two workouts, but any more and I was sure to be cut. The next morning I wrapped the ankle tightly with a strip of fabric and suffered through the next week in silence, gritting my teeth with every painful step in front of the instructors, not letting them see I was injured.
A twinge from that same ankle beings me back to the river and the job before us. We tidy our things and put our shoes back on slowly, not wanting to leave the tranquil place too quickly.
Close to sunset I see a thinning in the forest ahead. Our legs slow and we pick our way quietly toward the clearing. I reach the edge of the forest and see a great gap in the forest ahead of me.
“I’m sure there was no such clearing the last time I came this way” whispers Marah.
Trees lie everywhere. The brush has been burned away leaving a blackened ashy circle two hundred meters across. All the cover on this side of the river has been destroyed.
“Perhaps the enemy knows we sometimes move troops through these woods” I said, “there might be scouts keeping watch”.
I wipe my shaking hands on my trousers and crouch down in the shadow of a great beech tree, blackened on one side. I scan the hills around me. Silently I point out a figure on the ridge on the other side of the river, outlined in the setting sun. Marah takes my hand and points it further down the river where more figures are moving down the hill to the water, bodies held low. The hair on my neck prickles. The forest blocks my view of our flanks, but I imagine I can see them there too, a horde of enemies creeping through the trees, spears held high over their shoulders.
“Ready to sprint, friend?” I say, turning to Marah. He is smiling tightly but shaking with anticipation, and I realise that I am shaking just as much.
“The message will get through” he replies, “come mountain, fire or fight!”
I drop my flask and untie the food bags from my waist with the same hand. I feel in the pocket for the stone I had picked up that morning, rolling the rough thing in my fingers, then crouch down and press it into the blackened earth. Perhaps I’ve reached my destination already.
I slap my trembling legs, shake the muscles out. There is no question of going back the way we came, our only hope is that after running all day we are still faster than any pursuers. If we can make it across the clearing to the forest on the other side, we might be able to lose them before they catch us.
We leap from the forest like startled rabits, arms pumping and legs stretching far out ahead of ourselves, just to be swept back as the next foot lands beneath us. A shout rises from the hills and is echoed by more shouts from behind us.
I chance a glance back over my shoulder and see them streaming out of the forest, tens of men. I think I see a bow being raised. I leap over a fallen tree and grab a protruding branch, using it to change my direction, swinging my body around to slam into the ground behind the trunk. An arrow thuds into the tree just as Marah tumbles over and scrambles next to me. We have made it barely a quarter of the way across. I gesture to Marah to follow me and we scuttle down parallel to the tree before leaping back to our feet and running zigzag. My mouth hangs open in a terrible grin. Let them see what a messenger can do! Let them see what a lifetime of training has prepared us for! My legs find new speed and my feet fall into a new rhythm, flicking over the rough ground, vaulting and spinning over trees, switching direction and rolling under low hanging branches. Another arrow zips past my shoulder to skitter along the ground. I hear Marah shouting and worry he has been hit until I realise he is laughing and whooping.
Only fifty meters to go, I can see the darkness under the trees waiting for us now, full of places to hide from arrows, hollows to conceal ourselves from pursuers — then more figures emerge from those same trees. Men and dogs. I skid to a stop. We are surrounded on all sides. To my left the rushing river water pegs us in. Behind and to the right enemy is closing. I head wild barking as one of the men looses the dogs he was holding back.
The dogs fling themselves at me and I abandon any thought of ducking and weaving. I fall back down into my body and feel all the pain and the exhaustion hiding beneath the adrenaline, I feel every muscle fibre and tendon and call them all into use and burst toward the river instead, head high, legs propelling me forward like a cart wheel.
I reach the water just ahead of the dogs and dive in. My arm scrapes against a rock with a blossom of hot pain. I try swimming for a second before being overcome by the water. I feel a sharp pressure on my leg as one of the dogs latches on to my ankle, I roll and buck to try and pull the creature under water as we flow down the river, bouncing off rocks and downed trees. I kick wildly at its head until I feel it loosen its grip and be pulled away from me in the rolling white water.
Gasping for air, I surface for a second and try and get my bearings. Just ahead the river bends to the right and I try and kick myself into the bank before being pulled under again. I catch a glimpse of Marah not far away, clinging to a floating branch. A few more desperate kicks get me close enough to the bank that I manage to grab onto a root. I hang there breathlessly for a minute then I feel cold hands under my shoulders as Marah helps pull my soaked, shivering body out of the water.
The shouts are quieter now, and looking back over the river I can see that the water has carried me a good way from the pursuers. If I can just get to my feet now, I should be able to lose them in these woods. I pull myself to my knees and retch onto the grass.
“Time for that later!” says Marah “let’s go, I bet we can beat them up that hill and lose them in the moors beyond” he pulls on my arm, trying to get me to my feet.
All my instincts are screaming that I must rise, must run, but this time, to deliver this message, I must stop running for once. The message must get through, it must, it must.
“I can’t! I can’t move” I say
He kneels next to me on the grass and begins checking my body for wounds.
“You have to leave me, Marah!” I say through chattering teeth, “continue on to the capital, lose them in the hills. Finding me should slow them down!”
“Leave you? Are you hurt? I’ve seen you run after worse soakings than that, friend!” He resumes pulling at my arm.
I wish I could tell him why, but I can’t. The message must get through, and for that they must catch me.
The general was caught three days ago, they would have the cipher, from him. They would be able to decode the message. They knew I was coming, another messenger had died to ensure that. Once they found me, I would say nothing. For two days, I must say nothing, then on the third day I would let the message go. Only on the third day.
I had learned of the plan a month earlier, I was told that three messengers had already died for this, a whole legion sacrificed to give them confidence in the validity of the cipher, months of preparation to deliver one message to the enemy that they would be fully confident is true, a perfect trap that would allow us one final gambit to protect our country. I must not fail. The message must get through.
“You have to go, Marah, for I have a message for you to take. Tell the capital that the message was delivered” then I close my eyes, and I say goodbye to my body, and prepare to detach, one last time.