A tunnel of dark trees closed around the rider. This is no night to die, he thought. He glanced over his shoulder. Empty. The only sound in the still night was the cadenced clop of his horse’s hooves on the rime-dusted highway, and the only sight the crescent moon darting through branches like a ghost squirrel. He fixed his gaze straight ahead where the Great Highway tapered to distant, black point.
The rider could feel the horse’s exhaustion. He’d coaxed the poor beast between trot and canter ever since the letter had been placed in his care. His fingers slipped into his lapel pocket and closed around the folded parchment. His mind had been turning to it more and more.
As a rider in the Order of the Post, ferrying messages across the realm was his life. But this mission had been unprecedented: he’d been tasked to carry a single letter.
Post riders, known as “featherfoots,” never made a journey of such length for a solitary parcel. This detail of the commission alone had raised his guard. Even more unnerving, however, was the seal melted over the folded corner: the double eagles of the Supreme Chancellor.
It was reprehensible for a letter’s seal to break, even on such a long journey, and this one was 1,500 miles. But even worse, it had been under his care that the flap of parchment had worked free. And ever since he’d noticed his curiosity about the contents had grown into an obsession.
When the letter had arrived at his station in the hand of a featherfoot he’d never before seen, he’d been paid three gold pikes for the effort, more than double the usual rate for such a journey. At the time, he’d been thrilled by his lucky chance. But now, this deep into the dark north, he’d give the coins back and then some to return home and refuse.
He realized he’d pulled out the letter. He knew the addressee by heart:
Commander-in-Charge, The Shield
The Shield. He shivered. He did not envy the featherfoot on the next leg of the journey who’d have to traverse through there.
But the most distressing aspect of all, however, came when he’d finally failed his battle with temptation and read the forbidden words inscribed by a hasty hand:
Lock down the dragon. 83-32-7279. Nobody in or out. Await further instructions.
Lock down the dragon. The rider shuddered. He wondered for the thousandth time what it all meant. Surely, it was all a code to shield the true meaning from prying eyes such as his own. But the initials, S.G., combined with the seal of the Chancellor, made it hard not to assume that the hurried-but-still-tidy handwriting could belong to none other than the Supreme Chancellor.
Every man, woman and child in all four kingdoms knew the tales about the Shield. The rider’s bowels stirred with mixed excitement and dread. Maybe it’s not code at all. Maybe the old legends are true.
As night lengthened, so did its merciless teeth. The rider tightened his wool cloak. I hate the north. He was a man of Rocklands and felt like an intruder when ordered to make deliveries in Dehn. It was a strange land, with evil, barren landscapes and grim, dark-haired people who spoke in coarse tongues. At times, he rode through Pent or even Seldor for weeks, and though the culture there was quite different than back home, he never felt nearly as out-of-place as he did in Dehn for even the briefest visit.
The glow of the stationhouse windows appeared through a break in the trees ahead, blazing like a beacon in the black night. It should have been comforting—something familiar in an alien sea—but instead, the sight re-kindled his dread.
He eased his horse to a stop and dismounted gracefully. On firm ground, he flattened his gray tunic, which bore no insignia other than the winged foot that was the emblem of the Order.
He didn’t bother lashing his horse to the tethering pole. As soon as the letter was delivered he had every intention of beginning the return journey south immediately, even if that meant riding through the night.
Stepping up to the closed door, he straightened his back and sucked down a long, slow breath. Forging his face into a look of confidence, the rider knocked three times with firm knuckles.
“Enter!” a voice bellowed. He did.
Inside, a tall man rested with his feet propped on a low table. His greasy, shoulder-length hair hung messily over his eyes and his deeply stained fingers clutched a smoldering pipe to a bearded mouth. Smoke billowed like flowing runes from its wooden bowl. He wore the same insignia on his brown tunic as the rider. The winged foot of the Order.
“You’re late,” the man grumbled. A pale keloid clove the eyebrow above his right eye.
“Where’s the stationmaster?”
“Off duty.” A tobacco haze obscured his face.
“Off duty?” The rider frowned. It was not just unusual, it was counter to codified featherfoot principles.
“You’re here for the delivery?”
The rider mined the letter from his pocket and held it up for inspection. The scarred man rolled his large body to his feet and stepped forward casually, extending a long arm corded with muscle towards the letter. The rider reeled it back.
The scarred man frowned. “I don’t have all night.”
The two men squared off only feet apart. At last, the rider reluctantly handed it over. The scarred man’s victorious smile quickly fell.
“You broke the seal.” An accusation, not a question. The rider retreated a step.
“It came open on its own!” His fingers tapped the hilt of his rapier.
The scarred man stepped forward again, brushing his cloak to the side to reveal a black scabbard and the hilt of his own glistening sword. “But the seal is broken. And from your watch. You know the Oath of the Featherfoot. And this bears the seal of the White Throne!”
“I read nothing!”
He laughed. “You read it all. I can see it in your eyes.”
The rider gauged his odds against the much larger man in a fight. Although he’d been selected to the prestigious Order of the Post not for his sparring ability but because he was light and fast on the saddle, after crossing the wide realm too many times to remember he’d learned a thing or two about defending himself. “I would swear to it. Hand on the Holy Book!”
“What man, alone on the long Great Highway, could resist such temptation?”
“I did not read the letter!” He tried to sound confident but was certain he failed.
The scarred man took another menacing stride forward and the rider, a step back. The dance continued until his back met the door’s prominent handle. The scarred man stopped, his flaring nostrils only feet away.
Then suddenly, the scarred man smiled. “I believe you.” He turned away laughing.
The rider exhaled in relief. “I take my vows seriously.” The sooner I start back for home the better. He aimed to be as far away from this place as possible by daybreak. “I’m glad to be rid of it. I hate Dehn. I want to get back south into Rocklands. It’s so—”
He didn’t see the knife coming. Only a fleeting glimmer as the cold steel reflected the light of the room’s only lamp. His world was turned over by blinding, searing pain. Shocked and speechless, he grasped desperately at the hilt of the blade protruding from his chest. A scarlet rose of blood blossomed down the front of his tunic.
The rider made a feeble attempt to draw his sword, but his strength was failing too fast. The scarred man smoked his pipe casually.
As the rider dropped to his knees, then to his side, the world began to eddy away to black. The last thing he saw was the scarred man placing a brimmed hat atop his head and stepping over his dying body for the door.
All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions