I kicked up little puffs of dust on the avenue as I ran in a medium trot. The insignia of the Guild of Runners was set on my shoulder, brown to indicate that I was an expert at my craft.
I was glad that my old master was not there to see how uneven my breathing had become, now that I could see the end in sight. It’s all in the breathing. That’s one of the first things we learn as apprentices. The breathing has to be kept steady. Once the breathing is even, everything else follows. Then, an expert long runner can do one hundred klicks in a night and a day, have a night’s rest, and do it all over again.
Long runners are how our guildhouses make their money. Our skills do not come cheap. But there is no other way of getting letters and messages so far and so fast.
When running, every footfall is a prayer, rooting us to the earth once more. The act of running itself is a meditation, whereby the mind is emptied and then offered up to the Mother.
“If running were not a prayer and a meditation, of both mind and body, no one could withstand the pain.” So my master told me all those years ago when I first entered the Guild. I have long since learned it to be true, but this day as I ran I offered it up to the Mother on behalf of Luas, my apprentice. His sandals would never drum the roads again.
By the time I got to the back door of the great house, they were expecting me. Within a minute or two, the Lord would arrive for his letter.
I sat quietly and drank, while my thoughts battered themselves against the inside of my head, like bluebottles against a window pane.
“Guildswoman,” said the lord of the house. “Have you been given everything that you need?”
“I have. Are you Lord Crann Croi?”
“I have a message for him.”
Of course, they all knew that, but the set words had to be said anyway. What other reason could there be for a member of the Guild of Runners to arrive at your door?
“We will have a message which will need to be returned to the city. What are your Guild’s fees for this, Guildswoman?” “There will be none, Lord Croi.”
“It will be in return for a favour on behalf of my guild.”
That caused him to raise an eyebrow. How like the guilds and merchants, he would say later, a favour for a favour. But he would accept nonetheless and save his silver for another day.
“What is the favour, Guildswoman?”
“Lord Croi, my apprentice Luas was killed on the road here. About twelve klicks back. Shot through the throat by an arrow.”
Even the Lord was shocked by that. Members of the Guild of Runners or their messages were not to be obstructed or interfered with in any way by order of the Emperor (bless his name). How else could trade be carried out? We were the veins along which all commerce flowed. A thousand interlinked guildhouses set at intervals across the Empire.
“If you set your men and huntdogs to look for his body and bring it back here, I will carry your letter back to the city without charge.” Luas, my apprentice had been a half klick ahead of me, setting the pace as I had instructed him to do. It was his first long run.
Now I would have to untie Luas’ Guild pouch from around his neck, take his sandals off his dead feet, tell his mother and sisters that he was dead in the dust of the road. Tell my Guildbrothers and sisters that his master had run on without him and left him there with his neck torn out by an arrow and his uniform sodden with his own blood.
I waited in the kitchen. The chief cook was plucking withered flowers off the statue of the Mother in the corner and lighting fresh incense before her.
“Do you pray to the Mother, too, Guildswoman?” she asked me.
“My every footfall is my prayer to the Mother.”
She left me be after that.
Luas’ body was carried in a few hours later.
“This was nothing to do with us, Guildswoman,” Lord Croi said after I’d seen the body. “Will you need an escort for your return to the city?”
“No, my Lord. Your soldiers would not be able to keep pace with me.”
I may be only a Guildswoman, a lesser person, but I too have my pride.
Lord Croi did not bother to offer any explanation for the murder of Luas. It would be beneath the dignity of a lord to explain anything directly to the likes of me.
But the Band Captain of the men who brought Luas’ body back was anxious to make things clear. I did not care about Lord Croi’s new business in dyed wool, his recent contracts with the city, or his resulting disputes with his neighbour.
The Band Captain showed me the arrow from Luas’ neck, what the nocks on its length meant, and explained who was responsible for letting it fly.
In all great matters, the Guild is gathered. Everyone has a voice then.
“There was no proof.”
“No proof! One of our apprentices is dead with an arrow in his neck while crossing Lord Dubh’s land and they say there is no proof.”
“What is Luas’ life worth against the word of a Lord?”
“Nothing! The law courts have said as much.”
“To claim otherwise is to doubt the honour of a Lord.”
Usually we are led by the wisdom of our masters, those who led and trained us when we ourselves were apprentices. That day the Guildhall was crowded with anger and raised voices.
“What does the Guild of Merchants say?”
“What is there left to do? The law courts have given their judgement.”
“How can there be justice for us there?”
“Have the courts ever taken the side of a lesser person over a Lord?”
“Where will it end? Will the lives of all of us be under threat now as we go about our business?”
They were beginning to weary, their arguments growing ragged and flailing. All runs begin with a single step and your face turned towards your destination. If your destination is not held clearly in your mind, then how can it ever be reached?
I had run back from Luas’ murder over the high passes of Botey Beag, up rocky paths between bogs with only sheep and scaw crows for company, through the empty, winding paths of Bas Capall Bog.
At first, only my training and long years of practice prevented me from running wild and shrieking in my grief and guilt. But as always the breathing soothed me, the footfalls stilled my mind, and the Mother listened to my prayer of mind and body.
“Guildswoman Longrunner Ean would speak.”
They grew silent at that. They all knew that I had been with Luas when he was murdered, that I had run the one hundred and fifty klicks home in a night and less than a day with his sandals about my neck, passing Guildhouses on the way but refusing all relays and taking no rests.
Such an extended prayer to the Mother had not been done in the living memory of our Guildhouse.
“No Lord is censured for killing a beast of burden, a carrier pigeon, or an ox. To them we are little more than pack animals.”
They grew angry at that; they did not wish to see the truth.
“What is the value of Luas’ life against the word of a Lord? Nothing. But he was of value to us. Apprentice Luas was our Guildbrother, signed and sworn to us and us to him.”
They were all familiar with that; it was the stuff of the speeches on the Guild Saint’s Day, after the race competitions, and at the Year’s Turn celebrations.
“We are all bound by the words we have sworn, bound together to ensure that what we have is shared equally, both bounty and burden. We are brothers and sisters of the Guild of Runners, and this long run is only just beginning.”
In the end it was our long habit of unity that allowed us to reach our decision. The more passionate runners left that night, straight after the meeting, the rest the following morning.
All of them left at a rapid jog-trot, and would fan out eventually to all our Guildhouses across the length and breadth of the Empire. They were all carrying the same written instructions.
The following letters and messages would no longer be accepted by any members of any of the Guildhouses of the Guild of Runners for any price, reason, or favour: those of Lord Dubh and his family and his kin, his relatives, his friends and his business associates, his partners and his contracts, anyone who bought or sold to or from him, his foremen and his bidders, his craftsmen, his servants, his workers, and his troops, and anyone in any way connected with him or connected to those connected with him.
Our sandals would no longer drum the roads on his behalf.
In the Guild of Runners we understand well that endurance is the first virtue.