Ivor had been running for two days. He was tired all over, from the leathery soles of his bare feet to the coarse black thatch on his head. And he was about to meet the king.
Although he and Chief Runner Ninian had made frequent stops to eat, drink, and catch their breath, sleep had been a rarity. They must have slept at times, but Ivor couldn't remember when or where. Now, in the slow gloaming of a summer evening, they had arrived at their destination, the royal palace of Scone, and he had no interest in looking at anything. What he saw seemed much like the mormaor's fort at Stiegle--a stone wall on a hilltop with thatched cottages inside. In a grey blur, he followed Ninian up to the entrance. Shivering as his sweat dried, he leaned against the wall while Ninian shouted guard to open the gate. The two runners stood there obediently when guards came out to inspect them, examine their silver belt buckles engraved with running horses, and grudgingly admit them.
They were escorted inside by swordsmen along alleys between the cottages. A man opened a door and proclaimed, "Runners from Earl Malcolm, Mormaor of the West, sire." And they were ushered into the presence of His Grace Constantine II, King of the Scots and Picts, Lord of Alba.
At that point Ivor did wake up some. The room was small, lit by sweet-smelling beeswax candles. It had tapestries on the walls and was furnished with a table and some stools. There was also a chair, and a surprisingly young man standing in front of it. He wore a fine linen gown and a moustache, but no beard, and he looked tired. He looked tired? At the moment Ivor was the world expert on tired, but this must be the king, because Ninian was bowing.
"Ninian of Whisht!" the king exclaimed. "Welcome! Prepare meat and drink for these men. So, Ninian, what have you brought me this time?"
"This, sire." Ninian aimed a thumb at Ivor. "His name is Ivor of Glenbroch, and he is the youngest and newest of the mormaor's runners."
So it was Ivor's turn to bow. He knew that the reason Ninian had brought him along was to show him the way and present him at court, so he would be admitted whenever he came in future, but he hated being displayed like a hunting trophy. And now King Constantine himself was looking him up and down. Mostly up. But he did not make jokes about ship's masts or bulrushes.
"Welcome, Ivor of Glenbroch." He had a soft, musical voice. "Glenbroch… Ah, yes. The housecarls there recently deposed their thane and promoted Tanist Tasgall."
"And the new tanist they elected, sire," Ninian said, "is Angus of Bracken, who is Ivor's eldest brother."
"Indeed?" the king looked impressed. "I have heard of Angus of Bracken! So you must have been Ivor of Bracken before you left the glen to run for Malcolm?"
"Aye, Your Grace," Ivor said.
"And you were named for your father, the great Ivor of Bracken! You are sprung from a noble line, Ivor."
To which Ivor could only mutter, "Thank you, Your Grace," and hope he wasn't blushing under his mask of dust and dried sweat.
"How old are you?" The king seemed genuinely interested.
"Sixteen, Your Grace."
"And you managed to keep up with Ninian all the way here from Stiegle? That was well done!"
"Not so, sire," Ninian said. "I managed to keep up with him, but only just. Oh, those legs of his! I feel a hundred years old. I may never run again."
The king laughed. "You are a lying churl, Ninian of Whist! So what did you bring me, Ivor son of Ivor?"
Oh! "This, sire." Ivor hastily unlaced his satchel to pull out the scroll he had carried for the last two days. He was annoyed that he and Ninian had been sent to deliver a written report. Any stupid horseman could have brought that.
King Constantine accepted the scroll with a sigh. "Then you fine gentlemen are free to go and attend to your hunger and thirst, and to enjoy some well-earned rest, while I must summon some gossipy cleric to read all this to me and tell me what your master has to say. I shall send for you both in the morning. God grant you a good night."
The runners bowed and departed.
Ivor and Ninian gorged on roast pork, onions, and small beer--anyone who drank water without some beer in it would soon die of belly fever. They spent the night in the king's hall, on a floor so packed with housecarls that they barely had room to turn over. The snoring had already begun when they got there and probably it roared like thunder all night long, but Ivor of Glenbroch heard none of it.
Roosters announced the dawn, cows lowed to be milked, and a bell tolled. Another hot day lay ahead, another day of frantic preparation for war.
"So what did you think of the king?" Ninian asked as he and Ivor sat up and cautiously stretched, counting their aches and inspecting their feet for blisters.
"He's very, um, polite," Ivor said, then found a better word, "Gracious."
"That's why they call him His Grace, I suppose. He's a good king. Men are proud to serve him."
He was very different from Malcolm, Mormaor of Stiegle, who was somehow,… harder. Ivor was proud to serve Malcolm, but Constantine had impressed him too, in their few moments together.
The two runners barely had time to rinse off at a trough and gulp down some bread and honey before a page came to take them back to the king's presence. Kings worked long hours, it seemed. He was in the same room as before, staring out the window, but he swung around with a smile when they entered. Ivor guessed what was about to happen and his heart sank.
"Ninian and Ivor! Malcolm sent some questions that need answers right away. My own runners are all out on missions. Does either of you feel fit enough to run back to Stiegle right away?"
Two voices said, "Aye, sire!" simultaneously.
"You're certain?" Constantine asked. "Normally I would never ask a man to do this so soon."
It occurred to Ivor that Malcolm might have asked that question once, but not twice like that. He joined Ninian in insisting he was ready and able. He was not going to be bested at running, not even by Malcolm's captain of runners. He had beaten Ninian in a race on the day they met, which was the reason the mormaor had hired him, and Ninian had never asked for a rematch. Word of the newbie's strength had spread quickly, for none of Malcolm's other runners had ever challenged him.
"Very well," the king said. "This will have to be verbal, though." That implied that it was too secret to write down, which would have meant passing the information through the ears of a clerical scribe in Scone and the mouth of a clerical reader in Stiegle. The only people who could read and write were either priests or monks, and both whispered to bishops. Bishops liked to meddle in the affairs of kings. Runners used their memories and were sworn to secrecy. Being a runner was an important job, a good way for a man to earn his bread until he could grow a beard and become a swordsman.
Of course horses were faster than runners over short distances, but not over a long haul. No animal on earth could outrun a trained runner, covering forty or fifty miles a day. When a horse had to stop and graze for hours, a man could slow to a walk for a while and chew on a strip of jerky.
Ivor and Ninian straightened up, put palms against thighs, and watched the royal lips as they recited the message. It was all about details of the coming war, although Ivor was much too busy memorizing the words to understand what they meant. When the litany had ended, it was a moment before he relaxed and thought to breathe.
"Speak it back, Ivor," the king said.
Ivor clenched teeth at the thought that he was being tested again. People were always testing him, as if they couldn't believe he could do a man's job. But perhaps not this time, because speaking back was standard with a long message, and this was a very long and tricky one, all lists and unrelated facts. If the king hadn't asked him to repeat it, Ninian certainly would have done so, as soon as they left the royal presence. He raised his chin and spoke it back to the king.
At the end Constantine looked to Ninian.
"Perfect," Ninian said. "He's got a head like a barrel, sire. Pour in as much as you like, he never gets it wrong. On the way here I asked him to repeat a message he was given eight weeks ago, and he still had it pat, even yet."
"Incredible! I wish I knew how you lads do it. Off you go, then, but do not damage yourselves by trying too hard! An hour or two won't matter, and you're both too valuable to lose."
With their satchels full of cheese, bannocks, and beef jerky, the runners set off down the hill towards the Tatha River. They hadn't gone far when Ninian said, "You go ahead; I'll follow."
Ivor gave him a suspicious glance. "Why?"
"Because I wasn't lying when I told the king I can't keep up with you. I hold you back. You know the way now, so you go at your pace and I'll go at mine. That's a good safety measure anyway in troubled times. If King Osian of Northumberland has spies around, they would love to capture us, but this way one of us might get through to deliver the king's words and raise the alarm."
Ivor decided that the captain of runners was serious and was giving him orders, so he said, "Aye, sir," and upped his pace. When he looked around, Ninian was half a mile back, and not moving very fast.