“Good day Mrs. Coombes”, he shouted as he walked through the scullery on the way to the servants’ entrance and on to the remainder of the house. It sounded very formal, but you didn’t know who was listening as you entered such a large house. Incurring the wrath of the head butler would delay him even further.
“Afternoon Movo!” replied Mrs. Coombes, as she looked up from the pie she was making in the kitchen. From her current position she couldn’t see him, but she knew the lean boy with the short, and forever untidy, dark hair too well to worry about seeing him with her own eyes. She would catch him on his way back. Absentmindedly, she got down a large mug from above the fireplace and pitcher of milk from the larder before returning to knead the pastry that would eventually cover the steak, kidney and gravy in the pie dish.
Meanwhile Movo stomped, as quietly as he could, up the stairs towards Mr. Silverkin’s office. Before he even reached the main doors, a stern man in a dark suit opened them and gently pushed him through the opening. Inside two men in similar suits stood near a door through into a smaller chamber, and both straightened as though Movo were an important dignitary, rather than a simple messenger.
The main chamber was more than 40ft square and held a variety of different sofas and couches in an array of subtle green and pink hues. Although the layout looked random, Movo knew from past visits that it was arranged into two intertwined circles, like a figure of eight. This was so that two separate meetings, or one larger meeting, could be held in the room without having to move the furniture. For all the planning this had taken, Movo had never seen anybody sitting on the seats, but had often wanted to sit down on them himself after one of his longer runs to the Silverkin house. Today was no different.
Two large windows on one side of the room let in the afternoon sun, while a larger fireplace on the opposite wall would provide heat and light during the winter months. For now, they were cold and dark, especially compared to the light paint that was on what remained of the walls in the room.
Directly opposite Movo, the two guards aside the second door had sagged slightly since he had entered the room, now it was clear he wasn’t as important as they thought. The slightly shorter, but significantly more muscular, man motioned for Movo to wait, while the taller and thinner man gently knocked on the door. A deep voice from inside asked that the man enter, and after a brief discussion, Movo was called into the inner chamber.
The smaller room was darker, with a much smaller window on the far wall and a smaller fire on the next wall with two large leather chairs seated in front of it. Despite the summer heat, there was a small fire in the grate, and a kettle, recently boiled, hung on a hook in the fireplace.
A large, dark wooden desk occupied the rest of the room, and seated behind it, gently sipping some fresh tea was a small man in a light colored suit. A pair of round-rimmed spectacles sat on the end of his nose.
“Hand over the message, boy.” said the man. “Come on, I haven’t got time to waste looking at your sorry bones.”.
Movo hated to be called “boy”. At 13, he no longer considered himself a boy, but he hadn’t liked the term when he had started running four years earlier. It sounded like an insult, especially when spoken by this man. Movo handed over the roll of parchment he had been carrying in his hand since he had left Mr. Wimbole an hour earlier.
“You may go. But don’t go far, I need you to carry a message back as soon as I have written my response.”
Movo bowed, and then left through the double doors, and they were closed silently behind him. He walked out the larger doors and then ran down the back stairs towards the kitchen and Mrs. Coombes again.
Before he had even sat down at the table, Movo had picked up the mug and drank the milk inside as noisily as possible. With a satisfied gasp he slammed the mug back down on the table at the same time as his back met the wooden upright of the chair.
“You look pleased with yourself!” said Mrs. Coombes.
“I am,”, said Movo, “I ran from Mr. Wimbole to here faster than I’ve ever done before, and didn’t once have to stop or trackback.”
“Very impressive. At this rate they wont need any other runners!”
“I can’t do all the running! Who would make the deals for the traders and the shop owners?”
Mrs. Coombes’ smile grew wider “And so wise with it! Perhaps you’ll get plucked by the king for your talents?”
“Aw, Mum. The King has his own runners. I could never wear the outfits they have to wear. My hair is messy enough without adding that silly felt hat!”
“True, son. But you would look cute in the tunic and trousers.”, she said.
“Mother. I’m 13, I don’t need to look cute. I need to be quick on my feet and know my way around.” said Movo. His mother was always like this. To her, she would always be his little boy, and he couldn’t help feeling that she would prefer if he couldn’t dress and look after himself and that she would always have to help him.
If he was honest, he really didn’t want to be a Royal Courier. Not only did he not like the uniform, he had a sneaky suspicion that the outfit would slow him down. Also, with the gold stitching on the tunic with the King’s herald, he would be more visible and therefore a better target for those who wanted to intercept messages. Movo didn’t like the thought of advertising what he might be carrying.
At the same time, he couldn’t be a runner forever. In a year, maybe two, when his legs were longer, dodging through the narrower alleyways would get more difficult. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do though. Royal service could have other benefits, but Movo neither liked the idea of working inside the palace or as a palace guard. With the former he would be cooped up inside all day. For the latter, he would be risking his neck on a regular basis, and Movo didn’t think he was brave enough, or strong enough, to handle that.
Mrs. Coombes smoothed her son’s hair, before giving a sad look at the bell on the wall as it sounded to indicate that Mr. Silverkin was ready to send Movo running again. Movo stood up and gave his mother a kiss, before racing back out the door and up to the office.
Movo could hear the raised voices before he had made it to the last step. Someone was shouting at Mr. Silverkin, although he wasn’t responding at anywhere near the same volume. By the time Movo had reach the outer chamber the conversation had come to a halt. Moments before he reached the door to the inner office, he had to jump to the side as a large, fat, and dirty man slammed open the door and stomped through the outer chamber.
Movo had never seen a man with such dark skin from what was obviously mud and dirt. He’d seen cleaner blacksmiths, and they worked around black coal all day. Dressed in a similarly dirty red shirt - although it was hard to identify the original color - and black, loose fitting trousers, the man took one look back into the room and snorted before stomping down the main hall.
“Come here boy!!”
Movo entered the inner chamber and approached the desk. Without looking up the man handed Movo a piece of rolled up parchment, still warm from the where a wax seal had been applied to the roll. As Movo took it, another hand offered him a silver shilling. Before Movo could protest that he had been given too much, he was waved away. Taking the payment as an indication of the urgency of the note, Movo turned round and started running out the door.
With a brief goodbye to his mother on his way through the lower kitchen, Movo rushed out the side door and back through the main gates. As he crossed the gardens, he squinted up at the yellow Sun. It was already beginning to fade, and the smaller red sun that would take the city through the remainder of the day until the morning when the yellow Sun returned was already beginning to appear on the far horizon.
He gauged that he had less than an hour to make it back to Mr. Wimbole before he closed for the night. Keeping in mind the shouting that he had witnessed earlier, he did not want to think about what would happen if he missed that deadline. Without a moments thought, as soon as he passed through the Silverkin gates, he turned right and eased into a gentle trot up the street that would take him back to Chauncey Street and, if he was lucky, up past the palace, Crocodile Square and then Workman’s Row, where he would soon reach Mr. Wimbole’s factory.
At this time of the day most of the carts and wagons leaving the city would already have made it to the city gates, and he would need only to avoid the stall holders packing up their tables and wagons.
By the time Movo had reached the entrance to the factory, the yellow sun had nearly set, and most of the workers were beginning to leave. A massive pile of shovels, wheelbarrows and buckets had been stacked, less than neatly, by the front gates. No expert in the way the factories operated, Movo still thought the quantity odd. Normally they would have been shipped out of the city by now, rather than sitting here collecting dust.
“Ah, master Coombes. You have something for me?” Mr. Wimbole was walking out of one of the larger buildings along with the women and children finishing their shifts.
“Yes sir, Mr. Wimbole.” Movo handed over the parchment. As he did so, his sleeve caught on part of the seal, and a small crumb of wax fell to the ground. It was unusual for messages to be sealed. The runners code meant that the contents of any message would never be opened, even though all apprentices were taught to read so that they could deliver messages left at the main office. These messages had their own address written on the outside of the parchment, and the people who managed the runners had long ago realized that they could improve the speed of delivery by letting the runners read their own addresses and instructions.
Mr. Wimbole was reading the message intently and shaking his head. “This wont do. I cannot see how I can make so many items for so little, and at such short notice. I don’t have enough people, and it’s getting harder and harder to find new hands. Dear, oh, dear.”
Looking up from the letter, Mr. Wimbole spoke with a concerned look on his face. “You be careful, young Movo. Children are going missing right across the city at the moment. I’ve lost three workers this week. Not my best, but I can ill afford to lose any help at the moment. Where the children are going, I do not know.” Mr. Wimbole gave Movo a penny, a smile, and then waved him away as he returned to the building he had come from, still shaking his head while reading the letter.
Movo bit his lip. He had heard that a number of children had disappeared recently. So far it hadn’t affected any of his friends, mostly it was kids younger than he was. Well not that he knew of. Marcus, Rob, George and Weston had all been at breakfast this morning. Marcus had even been in high enough spirits to suggest they go to the Chasm this evening. Movo hoped he’d make it back in time so he didn’t miss the fun.
Wisely, Movo said nothing to Mr. Wimbole’s rant. Another rule of the runner’s code ensured that they would never get involved in the content of the messages they delivered, even if they overheard part of the discussion. The rule ensured the runners could be trusted, and also prevented them from being held hostage if the message was important enough to warrant outside interest. If they didn’t know the contents, they were of no value to any would be interceptor and would normally be let free once the message had been retrieved.
Movo headed back to Crocodile Square, and the building where he picked up his work in the morning and slept during the cooler part of the day while the red sun was above the horizon. He rarely spent any other time there. Either he was out running or he was spending time up to mischief, so his mother said, in some other part of the city. Movo remembered Marcus and the Chasm again, and picked up the pace on his way back to the square.
The runner’s building was built from rough stone, three stories high, and nestled between the Hawk Inn on one side, and a cloth shop on the right. Outside the building hung a sign. A roughly carved pair of legs, painted red, beneath a black shield, signifying the security and speed that the runners offered when delivering their messages. He opened the door to the main office, and walked behind the counter, which at this time of day rarely needed to be manned.
Pulling out a sheet of paper he listed his jobs for the day with the stubby old pencil. A trip between the butchers’ quarter and the Penny Restaurant; a solicitor’s office and the home of Miss Fitch, and his trip between Mr. Wimbole, Mr. Silverkin, and back again. He’d made ten pence for the day, but he would have to give three pence of that to the office, partly to cover his lodgings. He put three pennies into a bolted chest that sat on a bench by the wall. The rest, including his tip from Mr. Wimbole and the bonus of the silver shilling would be his to keep, and he placed them back into the pouch that hung at his belt.
Movo headed upstairs to his room. Well, it wasn’t only his room, he shared it with the four other boys, but at least he had his own bed. At the foot of each bed sat a large wooden chest, and Movo opened his with a key he kept on a piece of string round his neck.
Twisting the key carefully, Movo lifted the lid, then opened the money pouch at his belt again, and replaced the silver shilling with five pennies from another leather pouch hidden in a compartment in the chest. He felt self conscious carrying about such a large single coin, and it would raise the eyebrows of the older boys if they saw it. He wanted a trouble-free evening after the hectic rushing about of the day.
Closing and locking his chest again, Movo moved to a table by the window, poured a bowl of water from the pitcher that sat beside it, and removed his shirt. Washing his face, he also splashed water on his chest to try and cool down a little. He would really appreciate a bath, but it was only Wednesday, and he would have to wait until Friday when it was his turn to wash away the smoke from that blacksmith he had run past this afternoon. He was certain it wouldn’t be the last thing he would have the opportunity to wash away come bath time.
Putting on his shirt again, Movo walked out through his bedroom door, and back down the stairs towards the dining room, where he could already hear his friends making their usual laughs and shouts as they made fun of the people they had seen during the day. He hoped he had time to grab some dinner before they rushed off for an evening of dancing, otherwise he would never last the night.