Two weeks ago you were introduced to Ethaniel, Keros, Drexin, and their world of messenger lines, prejudice, and medellions. If you’ve not read it yet, then go do so.
And now, what you are really here for…
Bearers of Bronze – Part 2: Messenger Threats
Keros awoke to full daylight streaming through the crack between the two shutters. He blinked. Rafters crisscrossed above his head, the thick wood covered in carved names. Where…?
He shivered. He was thirsty, hungry, and feeling better than he had in weeks. Keros shoved himself up on one elbow. The bed opposite him was deserted, but a cloaked figure lay across the threshold, his back against the door. Dark hair brushed tanned skin. The messenger’s head rested in the crook of one arm. The other crossed his chest, holding a long staff. He breathed softly, his lips parted.
Keros rubbed a fist across his eyes and pushed himself into a sitting position. Loose clothing fell across his shoulders. He frowned, examining the new tunic.
When he glanced back up, sharp eyes watched him.
“Sorry they don’t fit as well as your own.” The other messenger shoved himself to his knees and yawned. “Drexin’s broader than you. But they’re clean, at least.”
The material slipped from Keros’s fingers as he watched the other push to his feet. The messenger couldn’t be much older than himself. “Who… what have you done?”
“Me?” He raised an eyebrow. “The name is Ethaniel, and I think I helped tend you from a poisoned sickness.”
Keros frowned and wrapped one arm around his midsection. “Poison?”
The smile slipped from Ethaniel’s lips and his gaze dropped to Keros’s chest. Keros’s hand flew up, clasping his medallion. It was safely hidden away, but the messenger must know. Keros flushed and stumbled to his feet. “How long… do I run next? I ought—”
Ethaniel gripped his shoulder, steadying him. “You’re not going anywhere for at least another day.” He eyed him. “You’re still exhausted.”
“So?” Keros dragged an arm across his eyes. “I can run as well as the next messenger. I can—”
“Oh, shut up.” Ethaniel pushed him back on the bed and strode to the other side of the room. He poured a cup of water. “There are few who’d have made it to an Outpost with the amount of blood-fennel you had in your veins. But if you’d like to recover fully and run at full strength, you’ll rest.”
Keros eyed the young man as he turned back. “As if you care.”
“And I’d have tended you if I didn’t?” Ethaniel demanded. “Well… I would have, I suppose. It’s what we do.” He shrugged, then hesitated. “I wear bronze too, you know.”
“Yathome.” Ethaniel touched his chest. He sighed and stepped forward. “Doesn’t matter. You’re resting.”
“No.” Keros pushed back to his feet. “You understand, then. What we have to do, to show them. To…” He squeezed his eyes shut, gripping the end of the bed to steady himself.
“Indeed.” A wooden cup was pressed into Keros’s hand. “Drink, at least. Then we’ll see.”
That he could do. Keros tilted his head back, draining the cup in three gulps. It tasted strange; almost cinnamony. He coughed and swiped his sleeve across his mouth. “Well?”
Ethaniel just watched him.
Keros blinked as the room seemed to wobble slightly. “I need my sword and the rest. I ought to get ready, even if… if…” the words thickened and one knee buckled. Hands gripped his shoulders, keeping him from pitching forward. The cup slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.
He’d rested a whole day. He ought… he needed… “Are my own clothes clean?” Keros mumbled. He was sitting again, somehow.
“They will be by the time you wake.” Green eyes danced inches from his own. The faintest smile played over the lips of the spear-shattered healer.
Keros’s head drooped forward. “You… you put something…”
“Dreamroot?” An arm supported him, pulling him back down. Down into the web of shadows and the starless night. “I knew you’d not rest. You’re too much like me, and that’s not a compliment.”
Keros tried to twist away, but a hand held him firm.
“You’re a stubborn idiot and you’re going to sleep before you wear yourself down and are sick for weeks.” The voice wavered in and out of focus. “It’s no fun, trust me.”
“You have no right…” Keros’s words slurred, but his eyes were already slipping shut.
The voice chuckled. “I have more right than anyone else ever will.” The hand slipped away. “Rest, Keros. You’ll thank me eventually.”
Keros tried to protest, but the words faded before they were spoken and waves of sleep swept him away in an irresistible tide.
Ethaniel shook his head with a quiet snort as Keros’s eyes closed. He’d have to be careful with the Dreamroot next time; the messenger reacted too strongly for a concentrated dose. Ethaniel rubbed his eyes and turned away. There’d be a run soon, and it would be his turn. But there’d be little enough Rance could do while Keros was sleeping so soundly.
Bells rattled from the outer chamber. Ethaniel drew a soft breath, then straightened his shoulders and stepped into the next room.
Drexin leaned against the door frame, head tilted back, panting. He grinned, then pulled off his messenger pouch and tossed it to Ethaniel. “I’m not taking this one, I’m afraid. How is he?”
“Resting.” Ethaniel sprang across the table and slipped the pouch over his own shoulder. “Dreamroot. Shouldn’t wake until evening. You can give him more if you need to. He’ll be ready by tomorrow, most likely.”
Drexin’s eyes narrowed as he studied Ethaniel. “Please tell me you rested last night.”
Ethaniel glanced deliberately away and took a deep drink of water.
Drexin groaned. “Ethaniel, you can’t…”
Ethaniel smirked and slapped his friend. “I’m fine. Just keep an eye on Keros will you.” He lifted two fingers to his temple. “I’ll be back.” He sprang out the door before Drexin could reply.
The day was warm, the wind filled with rumoring whispers. Ethaniel shoved through the door of Outpost Eight several hours later. He ought to be back; ought to tend to Keros. Ethaniel bit his lip as he sank on the step of the Outpost after the next messenger started off for the palace. He could make it back by dusk. Ethaniel’s head fell back against the stone, his eyes half-closed. Except Ard would kill him and Drexin too most likely. The Captain wouldn’t let him leave his post in any case. Best wait for the next message…
Gold flickered across green in mesmerizing patterns as grasses rippled in a gentle wind.
Keros would be sleeping in any case. Would be sleeping… Shadows seemed to thicken around Ethaniel. There was no need to sleep, not this early in the day, but maybe… maybe—
The jangle of bells jolted Ethaniel awake.
He jerked up, blinking. He’d tumbled off the step somehow and was wedged against the side of the Outpost itself. Long shadows stretched over the plain. The door still trembled behind him. Ethaniel stumbled to his feet and shoved through even as Eimhin handed off the message to another messenger. Eimhin raised one eyebrow and heat pricked behind Ethaniel’s ears. He shrugged, picking at bits of grass in his hair and striding to the opposite side of the room where the Captain was serving out dinner.
The Captain paid him little heed, crossing to question Eimhin instead. Something about the Messenger General making a round of the Outposts soon; possibly being ahead of schedule. Ethaniel grimaced. The General was Drexin’s father. Of course he was ahead of schedule. Nothing like finding time to walk with your son and tell him of all he ought to be doing. The man barely looked at Ethaniel, for all the talk of equal opportunity to Yathome. He barely looked at his own son, for that matter.
Ethaniel ought to check his supply of dreamroot when he got back. Perhaps it would do the General some good. He almost smirked as he finished eating, then left the others to their conversation and collapsed in a bed. There’d be time enough for dreamroot and Generals on the morrow.
Dawn broke with Ethaniel pounding along the path to Outpost Seven. The familiar building hove into view and he shoved open the door, then staggered back as a shoulder slammed against his chest.
“Ethaniel!” Rance swept a low bow, shifting to block his way. “And here we were, wondering when you’d get back.”
Ethaniel sighed. “You’re hindering a king’s messenger”
Rance gave a small gasp. “Oh, a king’s messenger. That changes things, doesn’t it?” He advanced a step, his eyes narrowing as they glittered inches away. “I suppose you consider the half-blood a king’s messenger too. Pity he’s going to give up so soon.”
Ethaniel froze. “He…”
Rance smirked, then shoved past and loped down the path.
By Erathrane’s shadows… Ethaniel pushed into the Outpost. A pale lad straightened quickly from fastening his boot. Black hair rumpled in various rakish angles and his pale blue eyes stared at Ethaniel for a long moment. “You’re back.”
Ethaniel raised an eyebrow. “Of course. And you’re looking better.”
“No thanks to you trying to keep me asleep.” Keros strode forward and held out a hand. “My run.”
So much for the messenger quitting.
Ethaniel chuckled. “You’re heading to Six, not back to the other way.” He ducked away and tossed the messenger bag to a young man from Eight who reclined against the table. “And yes, it is thanks to me.” He spun back toward the half-blood with a grin. “You do know that.”
The young man scowled, but his lip twitched. “You still should give me a choice.”
Ethaniel forced his face into an unsmiling mask. “Of course.” He gave Keros a quick shove, tumbling the younger man back on a bench. “That’s why I decided to keep you alive; so you can insult my choices. What do you say about payment… trade medallions and watch the confusion of every other messenger on the force?”
Keros blinked slowly, then a faint spark flickered in his eyes. He leaned both elbows back against the table, a lopsided smile forming as he tilted his head back. “You were up all night, weren’t you, that first evening?”
Ethaniel’s lips parted, then closed again. “You… I had to…”
Keros laughed, the sound like muted bronze bells as he shoved back to his feet. “Stop trying to pretend you don’t care.”
“He’s too modest is all,” another voice spoke from the narrow corridor between messenger rooms. Drexin stepped into the main chamber as the Outpost door shut behind the leaving messenger. “He even cares about Rance and Bryce, if you’d imagine that.”
Keros’s eyes locked on Ethaniel for a moment, the gaze sifting, searching. Slowly Keros relaxed, then held out one arm. “I suppose I should thank you.”
Ethaniel gripped his hand. “You should.” A grin worked its way back to his lips. “You gave me trouble enough.”
Keros shrugged. “I merely wanted to test your skills was all.” He pulled away, glancing toward Drexin. “He’s bronze too?”
“No,” Ethaniel said. “Son of a General, but he’s as good as us, never fear.”
Drexin nodded. “Nearly, at least, despite my father’s efforts.” He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back against the wall. “Speaking of which, he’ll be dropping by soon I’ve heard. He forbade the use of Eldur powder after last time so we’ll have to go subtle this round.” He smirked. “Any ideas?”
Ard was clearing away the noon meal when Bryce burst into the cabin from Six. The Captain nodded to Keros. “Better fortune on this run than your last, I hope.”
A quick smile flitted across Keros’s lips. “One would be hard pressed to run in worse conditions than that.”
“You’ll not have blood-fennel to deal with this time, at the least.” Ethaniel tossed him a waterskin. Keros snatched it from the air with a quick salute, took the message from Bryce, and sprang from the door.
Bryce watched him leave with a frown. “A place on the messenger force used to be an honor.”
“It still is,” Drexin said. He threw one leg over the bench. “I’m here.”
“The son of a general.” Bryce rolled his eyes. “Like we don’t know he’ll pull you out as soon as he finds a better host to hand you glory.”
Ethaniel stiffened with a hiss and Drexin flushed.
Bryce blinked, then a faint pink edged his ears. “Sorry…” He glanced away. “I didn’t… It’s not you, but the General—”
“You honestly thinks he gives Drexin more advantage?” Ethaniel demanded.
Bryce glared at him. “He holds him back like one of you Yathomes. Numbers satisfy him with the others. You’d think he’d grant his own son the same consideration.” He stalked to the opposite side of the Outpost.
Drexin snorted and shook his head. “You talk too much, Bryce.”
The messenger glared at him, but Drexin swung to his feet and strode easily across the room. “You ought to be happy, otherwise you’d not have a chance here. Now he’ll have to promote you if he can’t stand Ethaniel or me.” He grinned and held out a sealed parchment. “Rance left it for you.”
“Rance.” Bryce almost growled the word as he snatched it. “He’ll get a promotion merely because he’s the son of a lord, mark my words.”
“Is that it?” Ethaniel asked. He smothered a yawn. “I thought it was just his skill at insults; nearly as good as his father at it, though he’ll be insufferable if you tell him I said that.”
Bryce scowled as he broke the seal. “You’ve not seen insufferable until you’ve met his older brother.” He turned away and unfolded the parchment.
Ethaniel exhaled softly, leaning his elbow against the rough planking of the table.
“Erathrane’s shadows,” Bryce muttered.
Ethaniel jerked up as the messenger crumpled the parchment and hurled it toward the fire. It bounced off the corner of the hearth and rolled back across the floor. “What is it?”
“An idiot.” Bryce kicked the paper into a corner, his jaw tight. He shook his head as Drexin shoved a plate of bread and stew across the table to him. “I’ll eat later. I need… I need to rest.” He shoved through the door to one of the inner rooms.
Ethaniel raised an eyebrow. “Rance insulting those who wear silver now?”
Drexin snorted. “Insulting? More like patronizing would be my guess.”
A faint smile edged Ethaniel’s lips as he rose to help Drexin clear away the remains of the meal. “My dearest Bryce. I heard you have a silver medallion, so you must be fit to speak to. Also you have legs to run and eyes in your head. Would you be interested in the honor of carrying a message for me this next afternoon so I can find an outfit suitable to wear when the general comes by?”
“Shut up.” Drexin choked on a laugh.
Ethaniel grinned, ducking his head as Ard raised an eyebrow.
“What?” Ethaniel protested. “He would!”
“Debatable. What is not debatable is that General Zevlin will be by within the next few days,” Ard said. “Perhaps even with one or two of the lords.” He slung a knapsack over his shoulder. “I’m heading east to the village. I believe you both know what to do here.”
Ethaniel’s smile faded.
Drexin muffled a groan. “It’s clean.”
“It’s dusty,” Ard said. “Sweeping won’t take you long, I’m sure.” He swept a long cloak over his shoulders and touched his fingers to his forehead. “Carry on. I’ll be back.”
Drexin scowled and sank back on the bench as the door shut behind Ard. “Just when we had a free afternoon too.”
“What a pity.” Ethaniel clasped his hands behind his back and surveyed the room. Blocks of light spilled in through the open shutters, teasing specks of floating dust. “It hardly even needs a proper sweeping, so long as people don’t toss their messages about.” He swept up Bryce’s crumpled parchment, then hesitated.
Drexin raised an eyebrow. “Ethaniel…”
Ethaniel glanced toward the shut door. “He’s the one who left it. It can’t be that important.” He cocked one foot against the wall and flattened it on his knee. “I just want to see if Rance took the time to draw out Lord Kavon’s crest again…” his voice trailed off he skimmed the brief lines.
“Ethaniel?” Drexin straightened quickly.
“Erathrane’s shadows,” Ethaniel whispered. “What is he doing?”
“Ethaniel!” Drexin strode over pulled the paper from his fingers.
Ethaniel’s fist clenched. He could see the brief lines in his head even without the words before him.
No need to worry about the half-blood’s lodging. The next time you see him, he’ll be leaving.
“Leaving?” Drexin’s brow furrowed. “But Keros—”
“Bryce!” Ethaniel snatched the parchment away and stalked toward the closed door. “Bryce, come out right—”
The door thudded open and the broad messenger leaned against the doorframe, his head tilted against the wood, his eyes lined in shadows. “I have nothing to do with it.” His glare snapped at Ethaniel. “Leave it be. The Captains will sort it out.”
“The Captains?” Ethaniel demanded. “They’ll be too late to do anything if Rance acts at once!”
“He… it will be for the best, perhaps.” Bryce’s jaw clenched and he turned away.
Ethaniel gripped his shoulder, spinning him back around. “What will be for the best?” the parchment crumpled in his fingers, his breath quickening. “Bryce… what is Rance doing?”
Bryce jerked away. “He… I don’t…”
“I didn’t think he was serious!” the messenger burst out. “I told him I’d not help. But one can’t actually let a half-blood carry secret messages.” His gaze shifted from Ethaniel to Drexin, then back again. “Yathome is quite enough, but at least your parents were both Elentisaren.”
Heat singed Ethaniel’s ears. “And Keros?”
Bryce muffled a groan and retreated a step. “He… he’ll probably not run again. He’ll be fairly recompensed. And Rance will be dismissed. The line will be better because of it.”
“Better…” Ethaniel almost choked. “You…. You—” He spun away and snatched up his staff.
“Ethaniel!” Drexin seized his arm.
“What?” Ethaniel stared into his friend’s wide eyes. “I’ll not leave Keros out there to whatever ambushment Rance will lay.”
“We can’t just leave,” Drexin protested. “What if a messenger comes or—”
“You’ll be flogged,” Bryce intoned.
Ethaniel glared at him. “You could have told Ard while he was still here and dismissed the need for any of this.” He almost hurled the crumpled parchment at the messenger. “Keep the Outpost, if you please. I’ll not stand by while a fellow messenger is hurt.”
Bryce gritted his teeth. “What do you expect to do? Run all the way to Six? They’ll catch you, Ethaniel. You’ll not get away with this. You can’t abandon an Outpost!”
“You’re here,” Ethaniel said. His fingers tightened around his staff. “And Drexin. The Outpost will be fine.” He sprang for the door.
An arm blocked his way as Drexin twisted in front of him. “You’ll not leave without me.”
Ethaniel blinked. “Why in all of Erathrane would you come with me?”
Drexin pivoted, snatching up his staff and sweeping Rance’s missive from the ground. “Father would make an example out of you if he discovered it. But he’s fair. He’ll not punish you more than I if we both go.”
“Drexin!” Ethaniel grabbed the other’s arm. “Don’t you dare. He’d punish you too; to the limit the law allowed, if only because you are his son.”
A light flickered in his friend’s eyes and his lips curled. “Yes, and the law allows precious little besides humiliation and a score of blows. If it were just a Yathome on the other hand…” his lifted one eyebrow. “You’d be lucky to escape with public disgrace before the king, a whipping, and maybe a few years without sunlight.” He pushed open the door. “Coming?”
Ethaniel hesitated, locking his gaze with Drexin. The messenger didn’t flinch.
“Fine.” Ethaniel sprung through the door. “You’ll have to keep up.” Half an hour… Keros would be halfway to Eight before they caught up.
“Ethaniel!” Bryce’s shout followed them. Ethaniel glanced over his shoulder to see the tall figure waver just within the shadows of the Outpost.
“What do you even think you can do? Don’t be a fool.”
“Too late.” Ethaniel slung the staff over his shoulder, a leather strap holding it in place across his back. “The Outpost is in good hands. Ard or Zevlin can deal out what they please when I return.” He sprang down the path, ignoring the messenger’s voice.
An hour. Two… Keros was still weary. They’d catch up before he reached Eight. And then? Ethaniel grimaced. They could warn the half-blood, at least. Ard would vouch for him. If Bryce dared to speak, they might move Rance elsewhere.
It didn’t matter.