Following The Road

She ran, settling into the easy, loping stride that ate up distance and that she could keep up all day. It was three hundred miles from Central Province to Alaman, and she meant to cover it in as many days. Conventional wisdom said that Wayrunners could cover seventy miles a day at most. The fastest anyone had ever made it to Alaman was four days, a record set thirty years previously by Josef Al’catan, and at the time, he was a clear day faster than anyone else.

That day’s lead had been cut considerably in the last three decades. She’d nearly matched it herself, once arriving just over an hour after the gates had been sealed for the night (and had had to spend an uncomfortable night sleeping on the Road), but no one had matched the record, let alone beaten it.

This time though, she wasn’t intending to match the record, or even just beat it. She was going to shatter it. To make it in three days meant she’d have to cover a hundred miles a day. She’d have to start running at dawn, and maybe even carry on after dark, as dangerous as that was, if it meant making the next bunkhouse. Luckily, it was high summer – the solstice tomorrow – and this was her last assignment before her triweek rest period, so she’d be able to push herself harder than usual, as she could take her time recovering. Her only worry was injury. A broken ankle or dislocated knee had ended many a Wayrunner’s career, and although she had plans for when she retired (open a tavern and Wayhouse) she didn’t intend that to be for a decade or more yet, and in any case, she couldn’t afford it now.

Even injury was only a minor worry though. She was in good health, and she had a feeling – that indefinable instinct Wayrunners often had about how a job was going to go – which told her she was going to make Alaman safely. And in three days.

A marker drew near, at the side of the road. Five miles gone already. As she ran, she looked around at the scenery she loved with all her heart: the Yobon grasslands. Knee-high grass as far as she could see, purple, white and green (mostly green) stretching to the Aster mountains on her right, and away o the invisible sea on her left, with its gentle beaches and small but bustling fishing communities. She’d run that way several times in the past, on the Coast Road to Maldon. Occasionally she’d even thought about settling there, but it was here, in the sea of gently swaying, whispering grass, that her heart lived.

On she ran, the road a broad white ribbon laid over the green summer landscape, wrapping up the country as though for some colossus’s nameday present.

The first day of her journey went perfectly. After an hour of running she passed through Datch – fifteen miles from Central Province, eighty five more to go before night – and stopped at the Wayhouse there only long enough to drink a waterskin and refill her own, delivering the mailbag she carried and picking up another from Datch’s Waymaster. His call of encouragement followed her as she ran off:

“May your feet be swift, Katyyn! That record of mine needs breaking, and you’re the one to do it!”

On she ran, passing through towns, delivering mail pouches and picking up further words of encouragement from Wayrunners and Waymasters, goodwill that kept her moving and energised. Lunch was a stick of dried meat and a handful of way-mix: a nourishing mix of nuts, dried fruit and honey-coated seeds that kept energy up.

By mid afternoon, the markers by the roadside showed she’d covered sixty-five miles: a very respectable day’s distance on a normal courier run, but not nearly far enough if she was going to break the record. Katyyn lengthened her stride a little and began to clear her mind, reaching for the state of meditation called ‘no-self’ where the mind becomes distanced from the body and physical actions become automatic, fatigue and discomfort vanishing in the purity of running.

By the time the twilight began to steal over the grasslands, the road had changed its course and was approaching the Aster mountain range. She’d covered one hundred and sixteen miles, and her pace was slowing fast, despite her determination. The extra miles would come in very handy for the next leg of her journey, because the road would very soon lead uphill. She’d have to stop soon though, if she was going to retain enough stamina for another two days’ running.

Luckily, the nearest bunkhouse was less than a mile away. She reached it quickly and spent forty-five minutes coiling her muscles down carefully to ensure they didn’t stiffen the next day. Then she entered the bunkhouse and signed her name and the date in the logbook. That was one record broken, in any case: no Wayrunner had ever covered one hundred and seventeen miles in a single day before. She’d be famous for that, among the other Wayrunners (which was the only fame that mattered to a ’runner); but as good as that would be; it wasn’t the achievement she was aiming for.

Katyyn used the bunkhouse’s small firepit to prepare a simple but nourishing meal, then washed out the dishes in the trough and climbed into one of the three cots the bunkhouse contained. She wouldn’t have time to replace the firewood she’d used, as custom said she should, but she’d be by this way again soon enough, and she’d ensure that the levels were especially high next time, before she left.

Stretching out in her bedroll, she quickly fell into a dreamless sleep. The next day dawned bright and clear – perfect weather for running – and she broke her fast on way-mix as she ran.

The road began to lead uphill, into the foothills of the Asters. That was sparsely populated country, and she saw no towns all morning, though twice she came across mail posts, stout stakes hammered into the ground with waxed leather bags attached where people from the scant farms could place mail they wanted to send. Katyyn fumed at the delay checking the posts caused, but it was part of a Wayrunner’s oath, and she’d no sooner break that than cut off a finger.

Early in the afternoon, she reached the scruffy village where she’d applied for permission to site her Waystation. The place didn’t even have a name yet, but it was growing year on year. Rumours of gold seams in the hills had drawn prospectors here, and it appeared that in a few years there’d be a real town here and an offshoot of the Road leading to the major claims and the already-bustling town of Tisaw that had grown up amongst them.

That night she reached a bunkhouse having covered ninety-one miles during the day. Another frugal meal and dreamless sleep (this time feeling far too short) and her third day began.

Her body, which had held up well during the previous two days, was a solid mass of aches, and it was a pure act of will that got her back on the road.

Her day was a blur, her entire being the mechanical act of putting one foot in front of the other.

In the afternoon, she stumbled and fell. For a terrifying moment she thought she’d injured herself, but luckily she just grazed her palms.

Twilight was approaching when the road looped around a wood, and finally dropped out of the foothills back down to the flat grasslands, though here the grass had largely been cleared for farming. Looking through the gloaming, she could just make out, no more than a mile distant, the massive granite wall surrounding Alaman.

She was going to make it! She’d cut it fine, true, but she was going to break the record. She’d be the only Wayrunner who’d ever gone from Central Province to Alaman in three days!

Katyyn took a deep breath, put her head down, and ran.