I am planning a series of seven books which take place in Cember Earth. I've written about 500 years of history for Cember Earth and have even written up some legends. Below is one of my favorites.
The Runner Naytha
This legend, firmly believed to be true by those in Atharim and in many other place too, takes place right before the beginning of the war between Serv of Laurenthalas and Teth of Atharim.
She had to stay alive. There were many who would prefer death to capture but the secret Naytha bore would be lost if they killed her. She threw a glance over her shoulder as she sped through the late afternoon shadows of the small forest. If Serv’s warriors gain any more ground on her, she would destroy the message. If they did capture her, it couldn’t be found.
Had it only been two hours ago that she was opening the door of her mother’s cottage to a panting sailor? Her brother, Nordan, was an essential courier in the Teth Ring, King Teth’s spy network keeping watch over Laurenthalas’s treacherous king. But the sailor’s message had come too quickly on the trail of the last. Nordan hadn’t returned. And the message couldn’t wait. ‘The Eagle has flown’ was the code word, the signal that at long last it contained plans for Serv’s invasion. But King Teth would have to receive them before the next evening if he was to have time to act on them.
“But you are only sixteen,” Naytha’s mother had protested when her daughter expressed her determination to carry the message herself.
“I’m still the quickest running in the village,” Naytha had retorted respectfully. “Send Nordan after me if he returns but if the king doesn’t get this than Atharim will fall. As it is, there aren’t too many dangers on the road.”
Naytha’s mother had relented reluctantly, recognizing the truth in her words. After all, Atharim wasn’t invaded yet. Only neither of them had known of Serv’s small scouting force lurking in a nearby forest.
Naytha knew of them now. She darted around a tree, and paused, leaning against it as she caught her breath. In the distance, but much to close for comfort, branches snapped as her pursuers closed in.
Naytha took a small scroll from its concealed place in her bosom. They might catch her and they might not, but she couldn’t risk them finding the paper which would reveal the spies in their midst. Glancing franticly about she spotted a hollow log and quickly tore the scroll in half, stuffing it in the log then covering it with a rock and handful of dirt. It might not be the best place but the scouting force didn’t even know of the scroll so it would do. They didn’t know anything about her either, Naytha mused…only that she had seen them and couldn’t be allowed to spread the word.
The loss of the scroll didn’t matter too much, she reflected as she sprinted off toward the north once more. She’d memorized the message in case of just such a scenario before she’d left the cottage. For all its importance, the message was very short, simply stating that Serv would land at the mouth of the Shimilver with 10,000 men in four days’ time.
The shouts behind her grew louder and Naytha risked a glanced over her shoulder. She could see them now and, she realized, they could see her.
A branch cracked to her left and Naytha let out a small cry as she saw one of the men sprinting forward to cut her off. She’d destroyed the scroll just in time. Panic welled within her. What if they just killed her? The message would be lost and so would Atharim.
“Stop or die!”
Naytha turned toward the low but clear voice. The warrior to her left was holding a bow. Her own brother, Nordan, was an archer and she could tell from this man’s stance that he knew what he was doing. She stumbled to a stop, panting but struggling to stand upright as Serv’s warriors surrounded her. At least they hadn’t tried to kill her while she fled; it was unlikely they’d murder her now. Many of them, Naytha noted with grim pleasure, were gasping for breath. She’d led them on a good chase at least.
“What are you doing in these woods?” A tall man with dark sideburns, who appeared to be the leader, demanded as he stepped forward.
It took a moment for Naytha to speak. “I was just taking a walk. I wanted to pick some flowers for my mother and see if I could find any early berries for dinner.”
The man considered Naytha grimly, but with a hint of compassion. “It is a pity you saw us,” he said finally.
And that, of course, was the heart of the matter. Serv’s warriors were obviously not supposed to be in Atharim and even the normal Atharishian, who was ignorant of the upcoming invasion, wouldn’t be hard pressed to guess about why the soldiers were sulking in the woods.
Naytha’s eyes flicked over the group. There were nearly a dozen of them, she counted. They all looked uncertainly at their leader.
He frowned then sighed. “You’ll have to come with us…what is your name?”
“Naytha,” Naytha replied boldly. There was no reason to lie about that.
The man nodded. “Well, Naytha, you’ll have to lodge with us for the next few days. But,” he added warningly, “while we won’t kill you now in cold blood, if you make a move to escape you will die. Do you understand?”
Naytha looked into his eyes, now stern and hard, and understood perfectly.
The leader nodded and one of the men silently tied her hands behind her back. He wasn’t rough but as the rope scraped against her wrist Naytha knew it would be no simple matter to try and free them.
She wasn’t sure where the party had been heading when they saw her, but now she was relieved to see they continued north for nearly half an hour, keeping to forest belts, before settling down in a grove. One of the men untied Naytha’s hands and retied them in front of her then tied a rope around her waist and the other end to a tree, leaving her room to walk a few steps.
Naytha watched as the group of men settled down a short distance away and pulled bread and meat from their pouches. After a few minutes the leader came over and handed Naytha a piece of bread. She ate hungrily and drank from his water-skin then leaned back against the tree, observing her captors. They were watchful enough; she wouldn’t escape until nightfall. But perhaps then…
Meanwhile, Naytha knew she should rest. But knowing it and doing it were two very different things. The sun sunk low in the sky and Naytha was leaning against the tree trunk, finally dozing lightly, when a soft chirp of a bird startled her. She caught herself just in time and kept her eyes closed, though her heart beat wildly.
The chirp came again, twice this time and Naytha felt hope well within her. Slowly, as though waking, she sat up slowly and rubbed her eyes, glancing around the clearing. The men were resting beneath other trees or sharpening their weapons. None of them seemed to be watching her.
Turning casually, Naytha drew her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on her crossed as she gazed into the forest.
The call came again and this time she answered it softly.
A bush rustled slightly and Naytha thought she caught sight of a glimpse of her brother’s brown jerkin.
“Are you alright?” The words, quietly breathed though they were, seemed to ring in Naytha’s ears. She scooted close to the tree she was tied to before answering.
“The message?” The whisper was from the other side of the tree trunk this time.
“Destroyed…memorized,” Naytha wondered if she would have time to relay it to Nordan but he made up his mind for her.
“Nighthawk is behind me…in forest,” Nordan mentioned the rugged family pony. “I’ll cut you free…then fight. Ride north…don’t stop. Careful at ford…they might get there first.”
Naytha strained to hear the words and they struck deeply into her heart as she finally understood them. To ride away while Nordan fought and was possibly killed…and yet she had no choice and she knew better than to protest. Already the rope tying her to the tree had fallen slack. Naytha tensed to run then froze at a footstep behind her.
“And how is our Naytha doing?” A slight sneer tinged the voice of the captor behind her. He was the only one who’d seemed to object to her being captured and Naytha had no doubt he would kill her if she gave him an excuse.
“Go, Naytha,” Nordan whispered urgently and the next moment a knife quivered in the earth by her feet where Nordan had thrown it. Naytha snatched it up, springing to her feet and darting around the tree even as she cut her bonds. Nordan rounded the trunk the same moment, pulling his bowstring and sending an arrow through the man who’d been advancing on Naytha.
Behind her, Naytha heard the startled cries of her captors and the twang of her brother’s bow. The rope fell from her wrists and she slipped the knife in her belt as she dashed into the forest toward where Nighthawk was supposed to be waiting. He whinnied as she approached and she leapt on his back.
Biting her lip in anguish, Naytha turned the pony away from where she could now hear the clash of metal and plunged deeper into the forest. Nordan would have no chance against Serv’s warriors…and she knew him too well to hope that he would run for safety. And Atharim’s only hope was that she would leave him. Leave him and ride north to where King Teth and his men awaited information.
With a half sob, Naytha urged the Nighthawk into a brisk trot. Behind her the sounds faded, whether lost to the distance or ended in victory for Serv’s men she could not tell. The pony broke into a meadow and Naytha resisted the urge to kick him to a gallop. They had many leagues to cover and she knew better then to wear her mount out at the first stage of travel.
After half an hour of trotting, Naytha slowed Nighthawk and dismounted, walking quickly beside him for twenty minutes then remounting and repeating the process again and yet again as dusk closed in. Nighthawk could keep this pace all night, Naytha knew. And she could chart their way by the stars. Naytha ignored the weariness closing in about her with the night. She couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t.
The moon rose and slowly began to sink. Naytha stumbled next to Nighthawk, holding to his mane to keep her upright. Finally she hauled herself back into the saddle with the last of her strength and rested her cheek wearily on his neck. “I’m sorry, Nighthawk,” she whispered. “You’ll have to do the rest to night.”
The pony whinnied slightly as if in reply, but Naytha didn’t have the strength or will to smile. Once she jerked, realizing with a start she’d been dozing off. Quickly looking to the sky she corrected their course by a few points to the west. And still the black fields and forests jolted by.
As the blackness turned to grey Naytha pulled Nighthawk to a stop by a small pool, letting him drink and washing her own face in the cool water.
“A few hours more and we should be at the Shimilver River,” Naytha spoke, half to the pony and half to herself as she remounted despite the protest of her aching legs. “After that we only have half an hour to Teth.” Nordan had told her of the meeting place weeks ago in case she ever bore a message and now she reviewed the directions again and again in her head.
The sun rose in a glory of gold and for a time Naytha felt strength surge through her again. She was in the wilds now and wasn’t surprised at the total absence or even sign of people. And as Nighthawk trotted over a wide plain she spotted the thick line of trees marking the Shimilver River and couldn’t help a small smile from breaking over her lips. She was almost there. It wasn’t until she was on the faint track leading through the trees toward the ford that she remembered Nordan’s warning. Quickly she pulled Nighthawk to a halt.
“Stay,” Naytha whispered. She held onto the pony’s mane for a moment to steady herself. Everyone knew this was the only ford within leagues. She didn’t know how much information Serv’s warriors had, but they would surely know that she would go to the king and that anyone trying to reach Teth would have to cross the river. And if they had a boat and had traveled fast enough…she crept forward, hardly daring to breath. The Shimilver River was too treacherous to swim for miles on either side of the ford, and if the enemy was there…
Naytha peered cautiously through the foliage and started to breathe a sigh of relief. The ford was deserted…wait. There on the other side, near a tumbled heap of large boulders, something moved. Naytha’s heart sank as she picked out the long green cloak of one of the warriors leaning against a tree. Maybe it was one of Teth’s rangers, coming to guard the ford. But the next moment this hope too was dashed as she recognized the man.
Now that she knew the soldiers were there, Naytha quickly picked out six more men. They were half hidden in the bushes but didn’t seem to be taking any effort to conceal themselves. It was only because they were so still that she hadn’t seen them earlier and Naytha guessed they were as tired as she was; perhaps even more tired because of rowing up the river. They couldn’t have arrived much earlier than she had.
Naytha crept as close to the bank as she dared, keeping a close watch for any of the warriors who might be concealed on her side of the river. A sudden movement from the forest on the opposite bank drew her attention and Naytha gasped then covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out. Two more men emerged from the shadows, half dragging, half supporting Nordan between them.
He’d been wounded, Naytha instantly saw as the soldiers released him near the river’s edge, but at least he was alive. She wondered what had possessed Serv’s warriors not to kill him, then realized they probably planned to use him as a hostage. She gritted her teeth. Every minute wasted was another minute Atharim slipped unknowingly toward her doom. And now she had a brother to rescue too. The message first, Naytha reluctantly told herself. But she couldn’t do either task without crossing the river.
She gazed back toward Noldan and started. He was staring back at her, his gaze calm and determined. For a moment Naytha remained motionless, her eyes meeting his. She had no fear the warriors would see her. They were looking toward the ford, not the bushes next to the river while Noldan was the one who’d taught her how and where to hide and had known where to look.
Noldan’s eyes flicked toward the ford and Naytha followed his gaze, tracing the faint track into the forest. Only a little ways beyond that, in a hollow, waited Teth and his men. If only they knew…
She looked back to Noldan. He was gazing at her again and the motioned slightly to himself and then down the riverbank.
Naytha caught a choking breath as she understood what he was planning. She shook her head slightly but his eyes remained firm and she knew there was no dissuading him. He lifted one hand slightly and held it outstretched then looked away. Five minutes. She just had to be ready.
Blinking back unbidden tears, Naytha slipped back into the forest and remounted Nighthawk.
“Midnight,” she whispered, giving the signal to remain silent. “Wind.” They’d have to run soon. “This is it.” But Noldan hadn’t been bound. Naytha could only suppose his captors had thought is wounds would make escape impossible…or maybe she’d run away with the only rope they’d had. In any case, they’d made a mistake. He might even succeed.
Holding to the hope, Naytha nudged Nighthawk forward until she could see through the foliage to the river while securely hidden in the shadows herself. Noldan was still sitting against the boulders but as she watched she could almost see him tense.
Fear thrilled through her but Naytha leaned forward along Nighthawk’s, barely breathing. Whatever the cost, she couldn’t hesitate.
And then, in a flash of movement, Noldan was on his feet, sprinting awkwardly down the beach. With a shout several of his captors started after him while the others sprang to their feet to help or watch.
“Now,” Naytha whispered and Nighthawk bolted forward, barely slowing as he covered the narrow gravel beach and plunged into the ford. Even as the water swirled up toward her boots, Naytha followed Noldan with her eyes as he stumbled near the tree line. His leg was wounded, she could see that now. Several of the soldiers had spotted Naytha and were shouting, but she knew they’d never be able to reach the ford in time.
And then one of the soldiers raised a bow. Naytha let out a strangled cry as the arrow sped true, striking Noldan in the back. He crumpled to the ground as the archer spun around toward her. They were over halfway across the ford and Naytha dropped low in the saddle, sliding over until she was hanging to the side with Nighthawk’s body between her and the soldiers as an arrow flew overhead. A moment later Nighthawk stumbled and shuddered, then continued on, clambering out of the river.
“A moment longer, please,” Naytha whispered, righting herself even as another arrow smashed into the pony’s flank.
Nighthawk’s strides lengthened as he raced for the cover of the forest. The trees surrounded them, but Naytha could hear the shouts of Serv’s warriors behind her. Nighthawk faltered, stumbling. Naytha leapt from the saddle.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a sob catching in her throat. “Thank you.” She touched Nighthawk’s muzzle then dashed into the thick of the forest.
Behind her the soldiers crashed through the brush. Just twenty minutes. If she could just keep alive that long…if she could find Teth…and his rangers…at least the men behind her didn’t know what she carried…and how important it was she stayed alive.
An arrow slammed against a tree next to her and Naytha ducked, new strength surging through her. Apparently they didn’t care now if she lived or not. Naytha was suddenly aware of tears streaming down her face. She had to find him…to find Teth. Nordan had given his life; it was the least she could do…
Something struck Naytha, sending her to her knees and she screamed as pain seared through her shoulder. It was an arrow…an arrow…Naytha stumbled to her feet, her head spinning. She couldn’t stop now. Where was Teth? She was vaguely aware that she was calling for help as she continued stumbling through the forest.
The pain coursed through her…she couldn’t keep going. She had to. She must. There was something…there was someone she had to find…
Her knees buckled and she fell forward but strong arms caught her.
It was over.
And then she saw the crossed arrows over a strung bow engraved on the gauntlets of the arm that held her. Atharishian rangers.
“Serv’s…soldiers,” she gasped out, lifting her head. Already she heard the twang of bows and shouts as her pursuers became the hunted.
From the other direction a white horse burst into the clearing, bronze discs rattling from its leather tack. And on its back a man, clean-shaven but with an air of age coursing in his deeply set eyes, quickly glanced over them.
“Are you sure this is wise, Teth?” Another ranger stepped forward and grabbed the horse’s bridle. “Serv’s men are about.”
Teth didn’t respond as he sheathed his sword and leapt from the saddle, striding toward Naytha. “Who is this?”
Teth…Teth…there was something she needed to tell him…
“The eagle has flown,” Naytha whispered as the king took her gently from the ranger. She felt his arms stiffen and silence fell over the rangers assembled. She could hear the pursuit still going in the distance. Her shoulder didn’t hurt anymore either and everything was so dark…but first there was something…something was important…
“At the mouth of the Shimilver River,” Naytha whispered slowly as she remembered. “Ten thousand men…in three days.”
There, it was done…though in the gathering darkness she couldn’t remember what it meant.
Around her voices murmured again and strong arms lifted her. And then everything was darkness.
When Naytha awoke, she saw white curtains blowing in a breeze. The sun was shining and trees glimmered green outside. She tried to sit up but pain shot through her left arm and she cried out. Right, she’d been shot. The memories flooded back as an older woman hurried over.
“It’s alright, dearie. You’re safe now. And Atharim stands a chance of being safe again too, thanks to you.”
Naytha looked up at the gentle face vacantly, processing the words. “Not just me though,” she finally whispered, tears filling her eyes. “He died so I could get though.”
“Who did?” The woman asked, concern wrinkling her brows.
“My brother,” Naytha felt a tear slip from one eye. “Let me sit up.”
“Carefully then.” The woman helped her up and Naytha wiped her eyes. “Your brother…was his name Nordan?”
Naytha nodded, unable to speak and a strange expression swept over the woman’s face.
“The rangers found his body near the river,” she said after a few minutes.
“Is he here?” Naytha demanded and when the woman didn’t answer, “I want to see him.”
“I suppose you can,” the woman said after a moment’s hesitation. “Softly though.”
Slowly she led the way down a corridor and into a nearby room. Naytha choked back a sob at the sight of her brother, lying still and pale in the bed. She hurried to his side and sank to her knees, the tears streaming down her face now as she grasped his hand. The hand that had used to be so strong but which now lay limp and warm.
“It was too cruel,” Naytha cried. “To lose you and then find you again only for you to die for me.”
The hand she held closed about hers and Naytha gasped as she looked up.
“Who else better to die for?” Nordan inquired. “But you see, I did come back.”
“But they shot you,” Naytha exclaimed weakly, glancing toward her smiling nurse then back at Nordan, scarcely able to believe her eyes.
“Yes, and then left me to chase you before making sure I was dead.” Nordan smiled slightly. “The rangers found me and Nighthawk, though Nighthawk didn’t…” a shadow passed over Nordan’s face and he paused, then he smiled again, brighter this time. “But you are still alive.”
Naytha didn’t reply but wrapped her good arm around Nordan, not caring for the pain that jarred her wound. It was enough. They were together. And, as though from a distance, she was sobbing again. But this time it was for joy.