Macky had always been a runner. The Bridge-folk as a tribe had always been a quite ‘rough and tumble’ kind of folk. Wrestling was always encouraged. Martial games and hunting were often the order of the day. Sometimes he wondered how they managed to keep their peaceable nature in the world, but they did. The funny thing for Macky had always been he didn’t get on with that at all. Wrestling and tag games just made him cross; hunting he was hopeless at.
But by the gods, could he run. ‘Like the wind’ was not a way folk of the Dark would have described his sprinting feats. Any kind of breeze found way down here where the Bridge-folk lived was a lazy kind of blow: warm drifts from an air-vent, a gentle exhale from upstream as the pipe-walls creaked and stretched. There wasn’t a wind down in the Dark that Macky couldn’t outrun. And not another member of the tribe either. He figured he’d out race any of their neighbour-tribes too, though recently no-one was communicating in any kind of sporting fashion with their nearest neighbours the River-folk.
Not since the war had begun.
War was something so alien to the Bridge-folk that it had taken everyone totally by surprise and thrown all their lives into disarray. In the spans since the first shock incursion by River-folk, life had changed. There were barricades across all the entrances to the river-pipe. Sentries at every tunnel entrance, locks on every hatch. Swytch, the head of the hunter’s guild, had become de-facto militia commander and she insisted on drilling everyone in at least unarmed combat and use of a Sword-spear. Every day. Even pups.
Macky was exhausted. Swytch seemed to have it in for him, as he had to fit in sprinting practice between lessons in combat. He hated it and all his muscles burned or ached depending on how close to sleep span they were. The irony now was that in war-time when you got deployed as a runner, there wasn’t really anywhere to get up a good head of steam sprinting. Most of the straight routes were full of barricades and improvised caltrops, the shallower parts of the river, especially immediately upstream in River-folk territory, were closed by means of huge nets across the pipe. Most of the ‘running’ to be done these days was struggling through the twisting forest of pipes, hatches and ladders that made up the metal skeleton of their world.
New routes had been mapped by Swytch’s new ‘scouts’ division. Many new passages had been found, some new routes had been ‘made’ with the help of the Artificers guild. New hatches and doors through to long lost pipes and passageways. More threads in the growing warp and weft of the Dark.
Most of the work of a runner was round the village, taking messages to and fro. The Runner’s Guild hut, a short hop from the Moot-hall had a post outside studded with wooden dowels. From these message plaques were hung. When there was a message to deliver, the plaque would be hung and the message bell at the top of the post rung. Any messengers within ear-shot would make haste to the post, pick up the next plaque down and feel the plaque for its destination. On the obverse side was space for the message reply or space for a mark or signature if no return message was sent. When a messenger brought back a signed plaque, they could hand it in inside the hut to the Runner’s Clerk who would in return provide a credit stick. Up until the war began inter-village messages up or downstream were a treat that the runners fought over. Now there was considerable risk to the proceedings, the runners did the longer trips out of duty. The last messenger to the River-folk never returned. Since then messengers had been getting sent in pairs.
Travel to and from their downstream neighbours, the Myconid-folk and Air-folk was still possible, easy truces had quickly developed there. Likewise a truce with the Tunnel-folk upstream. They had always had a spear to sharpen with the River-folk and being on the same side of the river as the Bridge-folk they shared more with them. Tunnel-folk made excellent allies and spies and were constantly sending emissaries and planning with the elders. The Myconid-folk were farmers, far in the deep dark. With them the Elders had arranged a food for defence arrangement that was working well for all concerned, especially since fish, such as they were, were being solely caught and hoarded by the River-folk.
Macky sighed and swirled the dregs of his racta round his cup.
‘Time for another one Macky?’ said Dodg.
Clang : the unmistakable sound of the Runner’s bell.
‘Guess that’s our answer.’
Macky downed the racta, shuddered and loped to the Runner’s hut. He wasn’t first. At the post already was Heta, whose twin sister was still missing from the last communication to the River-folk.
‘You ok?’ said Macky.
‘Yeah, yeah, sorry,’ she said.
‘Get the chitty?’ said Macky.
‘Is it an inter-Vil?’
‘Where we going then?’ Macky asked.
‘Awkward,’ said Macky. They were still at war with the Stone-folk and the River-folk, though un-allied, were fighting with everyone.
‘One more thing. There’s a package with this one, we need to pick it up from the Alchemist’s Guild.’
‘Coo,’ said Macky.
It’s not like there were never packages to go with the messages that runner’s took, but it was far from usual. They struck off at a pace up the track on the edge of the village, to the Alchemists.
They stood at the large earthworks that bordered the Alchemists compound. Heta gave the rope on the welcome post a tug, setting a motley collection of glassware a-tinkle. Macky wondered how anyfolk ever heard it from inside the doors of the guild, with the amount of noise and chaos that habitually surrounded the building. But someone must have, because a reluctant feet dragging approached them on the path.
‘Yes? Can, I help you?’ a miserable nasal voice met them.
‘I’m your runner,’ said Heta correspondingly cheerfully. ‘There should be a package?’
‘Oh. Ok. I’ll. Ask.’
And the shuffling and misery returned up the path. The door to the guild squeaked closed.
Macky whistled. Heta drew circles with her toe in the dirt at the side of the path. They could hear faint chanting from inside the Guild. The smell from within wasn’t too bad. More of a chopped herb smell today. Standing here could introduce a Folk to a world of awful, smell-wise. Today, they’d take that break where they could.
Heta hopped from her right foot to her left and drew a new circle on that side. The door of the building creaked again.
‘Runner?’ the nasal voice wasn’t even lowering itself to come as far as the gate.
Heta plodded up the path. The door opened and closed. A faint breeze from off the river-pipe tinkled the chimes above Macky’s head.
‘Let’s go!’ shouted Heta as she bowled past Macky and out of the gate, ‘Time sensitive!’ she added, as if this may help.
‘And the package is?’ said Macky as he fell in along side her.
She ran on ahead. Macky drew breath and sprinted after. He crashed through the pipe opening nearest the Alchemists with a quick yip to the guard and into the echoing-sloshing metal noisy river. They ran for what seemed like a couple of thousand clicks before Macky realised what was bothering him. All of the floor wires and trips had been removed and all the nets across the pipe had been slashed. He was still thirty strides behind Heta another thousand clicks later and had hardly closed at all, till he felt an abrupt lump in his Air-sense as she stopped ahead of him. He slowed to a sploshing jog.
‘Hush!’ she hissed at him over her shoulder.
He slowed further so the water round his legs didn’t make too much noise and he stayed in Heta’s wake relative to whatever she had stopped for.
‘S’up?’ he whispered.
He got a strong stink of tar and fish: River-folk. Trouble then. The wind was blowing towards them from upstream, so as long as they hadn’t been too noisy, they might be OK.
As they edged forward they could smell blood in the water. And the wind started carrying the sounds of combat towards them.
‘There’s an alcove further ahead,’ said Heta. ‘Pretty close to the fighting I think , but if we’re quick and quiet enough, they should be too busy to care.’
‘You hope,’ said Macky.
‘Some spans, that’s all you got.’
The volume grew rapidly as they neared: grunting and clanging. So a spear fight then. But who with? Macky thought about the nasty spears of the River-folk. Makeshift in nature, but the pointy ends always made from some kind of bone shards. Always a nasty wound from one of them.
They really couldn’t get into a battle. Macky felt along the leather bandolier of pouches across his front that comprised what uniform there was for runners. Small knives were the only thing they carried as weapons and everyone knew the joke about taking a knife to a spear-fight.
‘It’s up here,’ Heta hissed.
The alcove was above the level of the water in the pipe at a place where the pipe widened and was mercifully dry. It was also pretty close to the action. Macky heard organised soldier shouts from one side of the pipe. Heta muttered something about Stone-folk, but shushed him to silence again when he made to ask more. He shushed, but that only made the ticking of their package more ominous.
Once she’d taken time to assess the situation, she sighed heavily and pulled Macky further into the alcove, away from the noise. An ear piercing shriek and a sickly squelch followed them, as someone was struck with a spear. The Stone-folk spears were heavy and had stupidly sharp flint points. They flew slow and needed someone with arms like branches to throw them, but gods if you got hit by one. She ducked back to check the action, then spoke rapidly.
‘Ok. Stone-folk jetty, our side, been there aeons. Opposite side, somehow the River-folk have ripped the pipe open and they’re chucking spears over from there. It’s chaos. We walk out there and we’ll get cut to shreds.’
‘Right?’ said Macky.
‘I’ve got a plan,’ said Heta. ‘It stinks, but it’s a plan.’
‘Ok?’ said Macky.
‘How’s your Beetle-ball?’
Heta referred to the game that Bridge-folk youths played, hoiking a small reed cage holding a Clicker-beetle in it. Great for practising catch and throw and honing hearing and Air-sense.
Macky groaned, ‘OK?’
‘OK, listen up. You creep back down the pipe, a hundred strides or so. I make a distraction this end. When you hear it, you get up a head of steam running. I throw long, once you’ve passed the fight, you catch it and keep on running to the Stone-gates. I’ll try and follow when the fight calms down. OK? Macky?’
Macky felt bile rising in his throat, ‘Uh…’
‘Good,’ said Heta.
‘What? If we wanna get this there, this is our chance. We can go back if you’re not up for it.’
‘No,’ sighed Macky, ‘let’s try.’
In the smallest of lulls in the battle, Macky lowered himself back off the ledge and walked as fast as he dare the hundred strides down the pipe in the direction he’d come. Then he turned and leaned into the breeze, feeling for something on the bottom of the pipe to brace against. His pulse hammered in his ears. Macky wondered if he’d hear Heta’s signal at all.
He needn’t have. A teeth-clenchingly loud whistle pierced the corridor. When it’s echoes shuddered off the walls into the water, Macky started running.
Heta yelled into the silence, ‘OI! MOTHER LOVING Turd-bags!’
Gods she had a pair of lungs on her. He might ask for a loan of them later, his feet pounded the water and the pipe so hard that his were on fire. He knew he was going some, he’d never worked so hard at running. It didn’t feel enough. Like a dream. Where you were trapped. But something gluey. He forced on. Churning.
‘Go long!’ yelled Heta and the strange ticking sound slowly stretched over the battle scene.
Macky thought hard about how many strides he could fit between each tick. Because the alternative was to think about the stirring of the folk on either side of the pipe, who seemed to remember they had a grudge to settle.
Tick… Pound… Poun… Tick
Pound… Pound… Tick
Swish, past Macky.
The package was in the water ahead of him. The fighting noises seemed to be behind him. He skidded in the water to the package, trying not to think about the wet patch on his shoulder. His feet found the package and he scrabbled desperately in the foam for it ploughing on and trying not to fall. He could hear increased sounds of fighting behind him: the melee had pushed off the sides into the pipe. If he fell or they turned, he was dead.
Gotcha. Wrapping under his fingers shifting as he scrabbled, then gripped tight. His feet uncurled back to upright and he leapt forwards again. He regained his stride, not daring to cock an ear behind him lest the distraction slow him down.
The package ticked on.
When Heta caught up with him, half a span had passed. Macky was sat on the grand steps outside the Stone-gate. Inside the Stone-halls some kind of raucous celebration was taking place. Heta had to raise her voice to be heard.
‘Hey.’ They embraced. Macky winced.
Heta recoiled, suddenly, ‘You delivered it?’
‘I’ve just come out now. Well, I took the packet into the runner stall, they said take it in person and hand it over.’
‘So I took it to the place the guy said.’
‘This old Stone-folk fella took it off me, laughed, wound it up again and gave it me back.’
‘With another message plaque by return. Oh and a fistful of tally sticks: we’re loaded.’
Macky held the top of his shoulder where he’d had a Stone-folk shaman bandage it with something astringent. At least it wasn’t going to fall off. Heta helped him stand and they started to walk back down the tunnel.
‘What did the message say?’
‘ “Thanks” .’