A New Charge
“I am your idiot,” the woman in the weeds said, the sneer in her voice cutting like a well-honed blade.
Dahmie cringed, gasping to catch his breath. His head throbbed from ale drunk the night before. The pain had clung to him through the day as he ran, trying to reach the next village before dark. Now, it clouded his judgement and made him say stupid things, like, “Who’s the idiot?”
The woman turned to face him. When she moved, the setting sun glinted off a polished bow of dark wood strung across her back. She wore tattered rags and a wispy hat like a cowl and her arms hung at her sides in a practiced stance of readiness. He’d seen city guards stand on alert like that before. And back alley fighters and thieves. She might have any number of accomplices lying hidden along the remote roadway, waiting to relieve him of the blood pounding through his throat.
“Huh…uh, my apologies…ma’am.” He winced, knowing he sounded winded, like easy prey. “Your Flag just surprised me. I…I didn’t expect anyone out here…so close to the Wilderwood.” As a Runner of the Guild, he expected to meet people in taverns when they wanted a delivery, not the middle of nowhere.
In truth, he would have run past without even noticing her, if not for the grungy Pickup Flag she’d staked in the middle of the dirt road. Running hard to make up lost time, head throbbing with every footfall, he’d nearly tripped over the Flag. Embarrassingly, he’d squawked as he jumped it then hop-stumbled to a stop, shouting, “Mother’s beard!” That was one of his favorite cusses because it didn’t offend anyone, except maybe bearded mothers. Too bad he didn’t hold his tongue after that.
Now she began pushing toward him through the weeds. “You’re late, Lug,” she observed, using the derogatory slang for Runners.
Dahmie stepped back, scanning his surroundings. Once he got moving, he could outrun most thieves, even at the end of the day like this. The problem was people with fine bows usually knew how to use them, and most thieves wouldn’t think twice about shooting him in the back as he ran.
“Um,” he said, “a—are you going to try to rob me?” He set his feet, preparing to turn and bolt. He would run long enough for her to ready and draw the bow then he’d dodge off the road into the tall weeds. It would work, as long as no one waited there to jump him.
She blinked once, slowly, as if she hadn’t thought of robbing him until just now when he suggested it, and was considering the idea. “Rob you? You don’t look like you’d have anything of interest to me.”
“I don’t,” Dahmie assured her. “I’m only carrying the one message…from a blacksmith in Keppleton to his brother. I hardly have any coins at all, and…my bow is junk compared to yours.” Noticing the glint of a short sword at her side hidden in the rags, he started to assure her that his own little sword was dull and warped, but snapped shut his mutinous mouth instead. Describing the shortcomings of his defenses couldn’t be the best approach. Instead, he concluded with, “Otherwise it’s just my sling bed and necessaries.”
She looked him over, like a discerning market shopper trying to decide whether a butcher’s meat had spoiled. The inspection dragged on. Just as Dahmie thought he’d best turn and run, she removed her hat, letting dirty grey hair spill around her face. “I’ve been waiting since yesterday, wondering if perhaps I missed you through my own misfortune. But I think maybe you’re just a bad Runner. A Lug too slow to serve my purpose.”
“Oh. Ah.” At least her insult suggested she might actually be a paying customer. “I…I’m not a bad Runner. Just, not the best either I guess.” Wincing at his own poor salesmanship Dahmie added, “But I can take anything you have and deliver it anywhere along my route, in any reasonable timeframe. And if it’s beyond my route, well I can pass it to the best Runner available to take the rest of the way. Extra fee may be required.”
Hat in hand, the stranger cleared the weeds and stepped onto the dirt road before him. Her odor reached him then, sour body and musty cloth gone too long without a rinse. The closer view also revealed the depth of age written across her face in branching wrinkles and sagging skin. Dahmie noticed as well the lighter traces of scars. He himself would be twenty soon, healthy and strong. Knowing the back ways well, he hunted and scavenged meals and escaped his share of scrapes. When he camped between settlements, he knew how to conceal his presence, hanging his sling bed and provisions high to avoid the skunjies that journeyed in packs from the Dread Wilderwood. When in danger, his speed and endurance helped preserve him. Yet, the woman before him had to be well more than thrice his age. To Dahmie she looked tough but tired, as if she could outsurvive him in the wild without effort, but belonged instead on a moldy bedroll in the dark shadows of a forgotten shack.
“Tell me, Lug, does your route take you to Caelon?”
Dahmie blinked, wondering what business someone like her would have in the capital. Shaking his head, he said, “No ma’am. Mostly I just run between Stall and Armwere on the back way. Or sometimes from Keppleton to Stall on the back way or even from Keppleton to Armwere. I usually don’t take the main roads because the Guild wants us to leave those for the older Runners. Also, there’s more traffic in general there so that means less for me to deliver. If I’m in a hurry I’ll take the main road, like the one time when a Councilman in Armwere wanted me to—”
“Stop it!” The woman started twisting the hat in her hands then spun away, stalking several paces up the road. In the settling dusk, Dahmie could almost imagine she wasn’t there at all. The textures and tears and highlights and shadows of her ragged clothing collaborated to blend with her surroundings. No wonder he’d not seen her at first. In contrast, her beautiful bow and quiver perched across her back, like a calsette waiting patiently to pounce.
Still facing away from him, she asked, “Will you carry to Caelon on your own for a price?”
“Um. Well, I can. But I’ve only been there once and I don’t really know my way around. The regular Caelon Runners know the city inside and out. And they know people who know the city upside and down. I could get it to a Caelon Runner and it might be quicker if one of them just took it the rest of the way. Otherwise I’d have to spend a lot of time once I got there just figuring out where to deliver it.”
“That won’t be an issue, Lug. It’s going to the Queen. Surely even you can find the Royal Keep?”
Dahmie’s jaw slipped open. Runners were bound by the Oath of the Guild to never pry into or reveal the business of their clients and, above all, to never, ever open a package, or “Charge,” entrusted to them. The woman before him might not be sane. Surely she would have no legitimate business with the Queen and some isolationists harbored more than resentment against the ruling class. She might be asking him to deliver something dangerous. A poison maybe. Or something far worse.
The woman spun and tossed a small bundle at him. Dahmie jerked his hands away and tried to jump clear but it bounced off his chest and hit the ground with the tinkling jingle of metal.
“My payment,” she said. “I think you’ll find it more than fair. I hope you are more careful with your Charges than you are with your coins.”
He squinted at her then bent to retrieve the small purse. Untying the strings he peered in and his eyes widened. Poking his finger within, he pushed the coins around. Not wanting to be rude, he didn’t count them but estimated the purse easily contained twice what he would have proposed as a fee.
“You must deliver to the Queen herself, in person. You must not pass the Charge to anyone else but the Queen and you must never lose possession of the Charge except when you hand it to the Queen. You must proceed directly to Caelon with all possible haste. Do you agree to these terms?”
Dahmie tried to read her face but it looked red and blank in the failing light of the sun. “I…without prying into your business, I have to ask for assurance that the Charge will not harm the recipient.” He rarely asked this, but it was within his rights to do so and this seemed as good a time as any.
She considered a moment then said, “The Charge poses no immediate danger to anyone. It is merely a message.”
“Oh. Alright. Um. I do need to make the one stop in Armwere to deliver the message I’m already carrying.”
“Fine, but do not tarry. The Queen will tip handsomely for speed. And there is more. You must wait for the package she will surely give you to deliver back to me. How long will it take you to reach Caelon?”
Dahmie pulled and tied the string on the purse then tucked it into a side pouch in his pack. Everything he carried needed to be securely bound so it wouldn’t bounce or fly loose as he ran. Runners of the Guild also wore a distinctive sash that helped identify them while conveniently providing an extra bit of strapping to the whole affair.
“That’s kind of hard to say,” he said. “Usually I can cover twelve to fifteen leagues a day. More on the main roads but less in bad weather. And on a long run like that I’d need to pace myself more. It’s about 80 leagues from Armwere to Caelon along the river road and we’re maybe 30 to Armwere from here so…120 leagues?”
“One hundred and ten!” she spat.
“Oh. So, if I did, say, eleven a day on average, w—what would that be?”
“Much faster than I could ever manage on my own. I will start waiting for you here in twenty days. Do not dawdle.”
“I won’t,” Dahmie assured her. In fact, even with darkness consuming them, he wanted to get moving immediately, mainly to escape his disagreeable new client. “I—if you just give me the Charge, I’ll be on my way.”
When she didn’t respond, he thought maybe she hadn’t heard him but he decided to wait her out. He didn’t want to try her patience any more than he already had, by saying the wrong thing. She seemed a little temperamental. Business lately had been poor, as if people were withdrawing from the world beyond their homes, drawing shutters, preparing for something they didn’t even realize they sensed. He needed her coins and surely a tip from the Queen herself would be outlandishly rich.
Finally, the stranger turned her head to consider the blood-red sky once more. “You will leave at dawn,” she said. “This night, you will spend by my side.”
A Surprising Exchange
Trudging through the brush at the heels of his new client, Dahmie wished she’d been a thief after all. At least then he would be on his way, either safe from harm along the route to Armwere, or slain and returning in spirit to the Cradle of e’Lucina. Instead, he faced the prospect of a rather unsettling night. She didn’t exactly seem amorous toward him, but if she expected an intimate evening he would have to refuse. Nothing in his Runner’s Oath prohibited him from sleeping with clients. He just didn’t think he could manage a convincing romp in the weeds in this case. Nor did he want to try.
While the Oath offered no guidance on his sex life, it was quite clear about the relationship between payment and fulfillment of duty. A Runner simply cannot take or retain payment when fulfillment of a Charge is in doubt. If his refusal to sleep with her made her rescind her Charge, of course he would return the payment. He needed the money though, so he continued plodding along behind her in his quandary, hoping he misunderstood her intentions.
When she stopped abruptly and turned to face him he almost collided with her. She glared and he jumped back. At first, in the dim evening he saw no reason to have halted their trek and wondered if these would be the weeds in which she intended to romp. Then his experienced eye picked out the signs of an expertly concealed camp. A fire pit. A suspended stock of provisions. A convenient cluster of trees for hanging a sling bed. He estimated she’d occupied the camp for perhaps two nights.
“Name ye an’ yer ken,” she grumbled.
Startled by the delayed greeting of strangers, Dahmie straightened and cleared his throat. “I am Dahmie Festoore, Runner of the Guild, born in Prawfeld of my mother’s side, hers of Prawfeld and Keppleton. My father of Stall, and his of Stall and Armwere. And ye an’ yer ken?”
She looked him over a moment, then said, “Call me Sharwyn, thought that is not my true name.”
Dahmie waited but she just stared as if daring him to ask, so he did. “A—an’ yer ken?”
She smiled, lips pressed together, before replying, “Born of need and fear, and that’s all you need to know. Hang your sling bed in those trees while I light the fire. Choose whichever you’d like; I won’t be sleeping tonight.”
Dahmie followed her orders, wondering what she would be doing, if not sleeping. He unpacked only the minimum necessary, in case an impromptu departure might be in order. With his bed and pack suspended, he shuffled to the fire and offered to share his provisions, as any road companion would. She waved the offer aside and handed him some of her own jerky instead. Two ears of wildcorn in husks cooked on rocks next to the low fire.
“Not ready yet,” she said of the corn. “One is yours. Here, have an apple while you wait.”
Dahmie hesitated then accepted the gift, thanking her and sitting on the ground. “Apples and corn keep a traveler till morn’,” he said, taking a bite of the tart red fruit. On many a run he’d survived on little more than that, since they were both so plentiful in the wild, in all their varieties. This one chewed easily and finished with a sweetness almost like gullenberry. “Westward Red, one of my favorites,” he added, wondering where she’d found it.
Taking another bite, he glanced up at the clear night sky. All the color had drained away to darkness and now the moon, nearly full presented itself. Infinite clouds of stars glinted wherever he looked. Placed by the gods in some age beyond comprehension. He knew the arrangements and their stories and their morals. Sometimes he wondered if other people on other worlds might tell different tales about different patterns, seen in the same field of stars.
“Where is She?” Sharwyn asked. “My eyes are old and the detail gone. I’ve not seen Her for decades.”
Dahmie frowned and said, “Leading, I think. She has been just about all my life. I…I guess I haven’t looked lately.” He squinted into the glare of the moon. “Moon’s almost full so it’s hard to say. I—huh. I don’t see Her. She must be…oh. There. Hm. I think She’s at the Heart of the Moon, mid-center. That’s, uh…new.”
He rarely bothered looking for the Cradle of e’Lucina anymore. As he matured, he’d settled into a comfortable regard for the goddess. He believed in Her and knew one day he would return to Her Cradle, but he could live a fulfilled life without actually worshipping Her. Still, he wondered if Her current position at the Heart of the Moon might explain the unease he noticed lately among people.
When e’Lucina positioned Her Cradle ahead of or behind the moon, She expressed contentment in the world spread before Her. She was much easier to spot then, looking like a dim star. As far back as he could remember, e’Lucina lead the moon. Some sects believed leading meant the goddess wanted humanity to accomplish something in particular and following indicated a greater sense of overall peace. Most people just took either as a good sign.
Dahmie couldn’t remember seeing her within the moon, heralding darker times. Having weakened Herself in the Purge of the Lye, e’Lucina could no longer protect humanity and could barely sustain herself. The moon sheltered her. To the true believers, seeing the Cradle of e’Lucina at the very Heart of the Moon generated considerable hand-wringing.
Looking away from the moon, Dahmie watched Sharwyn turn the corn. Then he picked up a stick and poked aimlessly at the fire.
“What do you think of that?” Sharwyn asked him.
“The Goddess taking shelter at the Heart of the Moon.”
Dahmie nudged a few coals toward the radiant center of the fire and watched them glow anew.
“Not a lot,” he said. “I’m not very religious.”
Sharwyn snorted. “Ahh,” she said, as if struck by revelation. “Not religious, but spiritual, correct?”
Her previously dull eyes sparked in the firelight and something twitched at her mouth that might have passed for a grin on a normal person. Dahmie looked away.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
She snorted again and kicked the steaming corn husks to the dirt to cool.
“How else would you account for our magic?” she asked.
Surging to his feet, Dahmie jumped away. “I don’t have any magic!” he said, waving a finger at her. “You—you take that back!”
“Take it back?” She pressed her knobby fingers lightly to her chest but still that grin-like thing played around her mouth. “But why?”
“It’s a sin!” Dahmie stomped a few steps, placing the fire between them. “It’s evil! And it’s wrong!”
“Really. I didn’t think you were religious.”
“What are you talking about? Everybody knows it’s corruption! It draws on the ravenous evil of e’Lyrth and it brings the Lye to devour us! E’Lucina warned us but we didn’t listen and the Lye came and nearly destroyed us!” He knew he sounded like every traveling preacher his mother dragged him to hear, but he didn’t care. He believed the words even if he didn’t worship at the altar.
Sharwyn pursed her lips and reached for the nearest ear of corn. She plucked at the husk, letting the steam escape into the chilling night air.
“Tell me Lug. You travel the ways nearest the Dread Wilderwood. In all your running, have you ever seen a Lye?”
“No one has! That doesn’t mean they’re not real!” Dahmie crossed his arms and chewed his lower lip a moment, studying the fire, before adding, “I’ve never seen anyone do magic either.” Feeling her eyes upon him he turned away.
“Never in your life?” she asked.
The fire cracked and shushed as a log crumbled to the coals, sending a cloud of sparks leaping into the night air. The smoke shifted and Dahmie smelled something green burning. Probably the husks from her ear of wildcorn. His stomach protested.
“I meant no offence, Dahmie Festoore, born of Prawfeld.”
Feeling his shoulders hunched up, he forced them down, trying to relax.
“Rejoin me,” she admonished. “Have your corn. You’ll need the energy.”
Our magic. She’d said “our.” He reacted so viscerally to the insult that he nearly missed it. Was she messing with him or did she truly believe it? If she really did have magic, the last thing he’d want to do is provoke her. She’d either twist his mind apart or lure the Lye from their desolation.
He hesitated then rejoined her in silence. When they’d finished their meal, she said, “You must get the type of sleep you need tonight to fuel your run tomorrow. But do not touch me. Find it within yourself.”
Not sure how she expected him to react to that advice, Dahmie simply nodded.
“I’ll keep watch,” she continued, “so you needn’t be concerned about the dangers of this night.”
Eager to be alone, and with fatigue and a full stomach dragging on him, he thanked her for the meal and for the watch. Then he bade her goodnight and retired to bed. Feeling he’d missed something, he intended to think through her words but, as usual, sleep swallowed him immediately and completely. When on a run he always slept so soundly that his body never even moved.
Just before dawn, he woke to the touch of warm hands upon his covered ankles. His first instinct was to jump from the bed and run, thinking thieves had stumbled upon the hidden camp. But he caught himself before even flinching, realizing thieves would slip a sword between his ribs sooner than feel his ankles.
Recalling his earlier concerns about Sharwyn’s intentions with him, he pretended he hadn’t awakened, hoping she would go away. He even made a soft snoring noise once. It sounded fake though so didn’t try another. Eventually, the light touch lifted and, shortly after, he slipped back into a deep sleep.
When he awoke the second time, the sun had risen, releasing a new day upon the land. Turning in the sling bed, he surveyed the camp. He didn’t see Sharwyn anywhere. He jumped to the ground and investigated but found all signs of the camp erased, except his own belongings. Even the fire pit had been scattered and concealed under natural debris.
The daylight revealed a much better view of his surroundings. To the east, a game trail led away from the camp. He knew this must be the route Sharwyn led him along the night before. To the west through scattered trees and low outcrops, the ground climbed a bit then dropped into what looked like a wide valley with a wooded ridge on the far side. He thought it must be a pretty view from the edge.
When he went to take down his bed, he found a small flat package amongst the covers, sealed in wax. Sharwyn’s Charge. Along the edge she’d scrawled, “Secondary return to me,” meaning, if he failed to deliver it he must bring it back.
He repacked his bed and provisions and hoisted and tied down his bundles to prepare for the day’s run. Though a long journey awaited, he decided to walk to the lip of the valley to see the view before returning to the road. He’d been this way countless times but never knew how much the land changed just beyond view. Runners often bartered news and information for goods or even room and board. Learning or seeing something new could mean the difference between a hot meal or stale bread for dinner. Plus, he always enjoyed a nice view.
The ground leading to the valley rim transitioned to a layer of exposed bedrock covered in grit and stones. At the edge of the drop-off, the bedrock dropped a couple of feet to meet a steep scree slope of gravel, dirt and rocks. This continued down perhaps a hundred paces before scrubby vegetation finally took hold. Further beyond, trees started, filling and obscuring any view of the valley bottom. The slope was still in shadows due to the low angle of the morning sun behind him. Some fog lingered among the trees.
The valley looked about a half league wide and ran mostly north and south though this appeared to be the nearest it came to the road. Dahmie guessed it contained a tributary feeding the Katchetwan River to the north. Somewhere beyond the distant rim would be the Dread Wilderwood.
He stood for some time appreciating the view and watching as beams of sunlight crept down the trees below him, first piercing then scattering the fog. He would have liked to stay longer, but the road called, and thoughts of a tip from the Queen finally prodded him into motion.
As a parting gesture, he decided to pee off the edge, so he freed himself and let flow. Only then did he notice Sharwyn sitting against a small boulder in the scrubby weeds downslope. He hastily turned away to finish his business then shouted, “What are you doing down there?”
“Watching you waste my time! Why are you not running?”
“Uh, I am! I will be! Right now! Are you hurt?”
“No! GO! Now!”
“No, you are hurt aren’t you? You fell down there right? Hang on, I’m coming!” Dahmie dropped to the rock, dangled his feet over the edge and pushed himself off. Slipping on the steep scree, he nearly cracked his head on the rock from which he’d jumped.
“You will come no further!” Sharwyn bellowed.
He paused then, remembering his fears of her magic. Would she liquefy him for helping her instead if running her Charge? “No! You’re hurt! You need help!”
“I am not paying you to nursemaid me, Lug! I am paying you to deliver my Charge. There is no other priority than that! Leave! Now!”
He glanced at her, wondering what he might do once he reached her. He assumed she’d twisted or broken an ankle, since she hadn’t stood. If nothing else, he could bundle it for her then help her back up the slope. Fashion a crutch maybe so she could go wherever she needed to be.
“No, I’m coming!” he said. Turning away, he faced the steep slope on all fours and began inching his way down. A moment later, an arrow slammed into the rocks and grit, sending chips flying, piercing his sleeve and pinning his hand in place. He stared at the quivering shaft, trying to process its sudden appearance. One breath. Two.
“Thieves!” he shouted. “We’re under attack!”
Spinning to direct Sharwyn to some sort of cover, he froze at the sight of her. She’d nocked an arrow and now drew it back, aiming directly at him.
“Not me!” he shouted. “They’re somewhere else! I don’t know—oh. You. You shot me?”
“If I shot you, you would be dead, fool! That was a warning. If you make me waste another on you I’ll gut you, rescind my Charge, retrieve my payment and find a proper Runner. You will die on this slope! Slowly and painfully. Unless the skunjies find you first. Leave now or die!”
Twisting his hand around, Dahmie grasped the arrow and pulled it loose. “You’re crazy!” he said. “Completely and absolutely. Utterly. Fine! I’m leaving and we’ll see who ends up being a meal for the skunjies. You’re on your own!”
Slipping and tripping his way back up the loose slope, he hoisted himself over the lip of rock and stood. Turning to face her, he found she still had the arrow drawn and aimed at him. For a moment, he wondered about the strength it would take to hold it so long. He discovered he still held the first arrow clenched in his fist. Surprisingly, the arrowhead looked unharmed from its encounter with the loose stones. Faint etchings decorated the shaft which matched the dark wood of her fine bow. He raised it and shook it at her.
“I’m keeping this, you! It’s my additional fee for mental anguish and physical endangerment!”
“You’ll need more than that! Especially if you’re not gone from my sight before I blink again!”
“Witch,” Dahmie whispered. Stepping back from the lip of the cliff, he turned and ran.