Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Place of Endurance by Noeleen Kavanagh

A girl travels from her farming homestead to chase her dream of becoming a Guild Runner in Noeleen Kavanagh's captivating fantasy.

I had never been inside a Guildhouse before. The chamber I stood in was small with the symbols of the Guild of Runners carved on the far wall, a pair of sandals and a message tube.

I examined the carvings, the sandals with their closed leather toes and strings to bind them. When I examined the tube closely I could just make out the rune at the top. I knew that one, faoi, meaning enclosed, contained, secret.

I heard a sound behind me and spun around to face the man standing there.

"Candidate Ean? I am Guildmaster Tapaidh. Follow me."

He had the cropped hair of all the members of the Guild of Runners and a lean, weathered face. But he wasn't very tall, which was a relief to me. Even though I was gone fifteen years old, I was short for my age and feared it would count against me.

I followed him along the corridor until we stepped through a doorway and into a blaze of light. It dazzled me for a moment until my eyes adjusted and I could see that we were in a tiny garden, ringed around by the Guildhouse with the noon day sun above my head. It was a plain, sparse place of raked pebbles and large stones with a blue periwinkle in a grey granite tub.

A woman stepped into the garden.

"Guildmaster Crom." She introduced herself and nodded to me before turning to sit on one of the large stones before me. She was a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman of medium height and well-built, not slender as I had expected.

Guildmaster Tapaidh left my side to join her. "So, Candidate Ean," he said, as he settled himself next to Guildmaster Crom. I felt exposed, scrutinized.

"I have no money to pay the apprenticeship fee, Guildmasters."

"We know that," said Guildmaster Crom.

I blushed bright red. Of course they knew. I had already explained to the doorman of the guild who barred my way when I first arrived at the guildhouse and again to the woman he called to deal with me.

"So you wish to join the Guild of Runners? Why is that?" she continued, her eyebrow raised as if to say, why would the likes of you be good enough to come among the likes of us?

"I have always wanted this, since I was a child, Guildmaster Crom."

Ever since I had first seen a guildrunner. We were all gathered at the manse back home on Gale Day to pay the rents when I saw a tall, slim figure in grey running up the avenue, her sandals kicking up tiny puffs of dust. People drew back before her and the lord of the manse himself came down to take the message tube from her hands.

All the way from Inis, they said, an unimaginably long distance. She would run back again that evening with just a handful of herbs to sustain her. All by herself too, with none for company or protection.

But who would dare to raise a hand to a member of the Guild of Runners? They would be spurned by the Guild, left with no-one to deliver their messages and letters, bills of lading and contracts, wills, notarizations or letters of authority. Or they would be hunted down and wiped out for such a crime. No lord would suffer such a crime in their lands and the Guild of Merchants would not countenance it and risk angering the Guild of Runners. So the housekeeper at the manse explained with an air of great authority. Thus I first learned of the Guild of Runners and first craved their power and status with a sharp hunger.

But I did not have the ability to explain this to the grave-faced woman before me. I have never had a way with words and she would think me unworthy of joining the guild if I exposed my true nature to her.

"Always is a long time, child."

"Since I was very young, Guildmaster, maybe six or seven years old."

"You're not from Inis," said Guildmaster Tapaidh. It was a statement, not a question. My accent marked me as being from well beyond the boundaries of the city, a peasant from the backhills. If I kept my mouth shut, I could pass for a local, but even I could not live my life in silence.

"No, Guildmaster, from Clappa." They both looked blank at that. "West of here, a village in the foothills of Cnoc Ru. My mother has a holding in the lands of Lord Dli." A small, windswept place of furze and flocks of sheep scattered along the flanks of the mountains.

"Can you read or write, Candidate Ean?"

"No, Guildmaster, not past the Forty-Nine Basic Runes." Much as I wished to, I could not lie. It would be too easy to expose me in it.

In winter, when the cold winds swept down from Cnoc Ru and animals and people gathered indoors, that was when Master Eolais arrived. Every year he came without fail, with his cane and books to beat the Forty-Nine Runes into our heads. His food and lodging was shared among the village and when spring came, he went on his way again with neither sight nor sound of book nor rune for us till winter swooped around again.

"The Basic Runes. That was more than I knew when I arrived here," said Guildmaster Tapaidh.

"Tattooed and feral from the docks." Guildmaster Crom smiled at him, sharing a private joke, forgetting for a moment that I was there and thus excluding me.

"Do you have a parent or guardian with you, Candidate Ean?"

"No."

"No? How did you get here then?"

"I asked my mother's permission and she gave me leave to go."

That was not exactly true, but I wished to sound filial in front of the guildmasters. In actual fact, I had told my mother that I was leaving for the city to join the Guild of Runners and she raised no objection. I had six older brothers and sisters, labour enough to manage the spring planting without hiring help. There was work to be done without losing time fretting about whatever mad notion the youngest child had taken into her head.

But she did not leave me go empty-handed. She wrapped up food enough for four days in a clean cloth, gave me two silver pennies for my journey and sent me off with her second cousin in his oxcart. It took me five days, but eventually I made my way to the Guildhouse.

"The desire in her is strong, Crom."

"Aye, but desire alone is not enough."

"We have need of Guildsisters."

"Aye, true enough. Men for the short run and women for the long." They both laughed out loud at that. Another thing that I did not understand.

"But the fee?"

"Aye, the fee," said Guildmaster Tapaidh. They grew silent and grave and my stomach clenched in fear.

"The Candidate Race?"

"Fair is fair. The Candidate Race it is then."

Guildmaster Crom turned back to me. "Very well, Candidate Ean. You are hereby invited to take part in the Candidate Race in two days' time. Should you do well enough in the Candidate Race, we will consider waiving your apprentice fee. Is that acceptable to you?"

I nodded. "Yes, Guildmaster."

"In the meantime, you are welcome to stay in the Guildhouse, if you should so desire it. As a guest of the Guild," said Guildmaster Tapaidh.

That was a relief for all my food and one of my silver pennies were long gone getting this far.



"So the Candidate Race, it is then? There'll be a good turnout for that. Always is."

I looked down at the Guildsman Eochair's bald head as he adjusted the straps on my running sandals. They looked and felt fine to me but he'd spent the last while making minute alterations and talking without pause.

"They have to be just so, just so, otherwise you'll be crippled with blisters before you've run ten sli. Is that not so?" He had no need of answers from me and kept talking. "Keep these on now, all day until the day of the race. Don't take them off. You'll have to break them in. Of course, it takes months to break in a pair of running sandals properly, but these aren't new to begin with, so it'll probably be alright. But don't go taking them off. Except at night when you have to sleep, of course."

He smiled up at me. "Now, let's see what they're like."

I stretched my legs out before me and pointed my feet. My feet with guild sandals on them! My heart leaped in my chest with pride and joy. Guildsman Eochair was watching me and I lowered my eyes in shame that he might have seen the pride painted clearly on my face.

"Walk up and down there for me so I can see how they fit. Tell me if they rub or pinch at all. A pair of guild sandals should fit like your own skin, is that not so?"

I walked as he bid me, my feet feeling strange and enclosed.

"Run on the spot for me." He circled me as I did so, his eyes fixed on my feet.

"You run high on your feet. Sit back down and I'll adjust them." He knelt before me once more.

"They should be fine now." He stood up slowly, stiffly, one leg at a time, about to leave. About to leave and still I knew almost nothing about the Candidate Race. My panic gave me a desperate burst of courage.

"Master Guildsman, what is the Candidate Race? What must I do? I have no apprenticeship fee."

"Nothing at all?"

"I have a silver penny."

He smiled at that and sat back down on a little, rough wooden stool opposite me. "Not many silver pennies to be found on Cnoc Ru. There never was."

"Guildsman?"

"The mountains make good runners. I should know. Wasn't I one of them?" He laughed out loud at the shock on my face. "Years since I've been back there though, and all those belonged to me dead now." He turned back to me. "With no apprenticeship fee, you'll have to win the Candidate Race, or as near as makes no difference."

He bent down and started to pick up the running sandals and leather thongs that lay scattered on the floor. "Listen well now, girl, for this is what I myself have learned to be true."

He laid the thongs out on his knee as he talked, in order of thickness, adjusting and straightening them all the while.

"The breath is the basis of all runs. Slow and steady and let the legs keep pace with it. If you outrun your breath, then you can never endure."

He looked up at me to check if I'd understood. I did not, but he continued anyway.

"If you can keep your breathing steady, you will eventually become rooted to the earth and reach the place of endurance. A run is breath and mind and above all a prayer to the Mother."

He smiled and stood up, ruffling my hair as he left. "Good luck, girl, may the Mother listen to your prayer."

And that was all he said. Breath, endurance, prayer. How would that help me win the race? I sat a while, thinking and admiring my sandals, coming no closer to any manner of answer till my hunger drove me to the kitchens.



There was a jostling pack of people at the starting line, families and friends, well-wishers and the curious. So many people with their loud city voices and self-important airs, all jumbled up together. I tried to edge my way to the front but there were too many people to walk between or around.

My grey tunic was well-worn and soft. I wondered how many other candidates had run in this tunic. I looked around me at the other candidates. Some were tall enough to be adults surely. Others had family members who were in the Guild of Runners huddled around them, giving advice, no doubt, about how to win the race. How to keep ahead of the likes of me.

I caught a glimpse of Guildsman Eochair's bald head in the distance. I wanted to wave at him, but he was busy talking to his guildbrothers and sisters. I heard the beat of a small drum and the candidates moved in its direction. Not knowing what else to do, I followed them.

There was silence then, everyone waiting, still. The drum beat once more, a sharp triple rap and we set off, a jostling pack, shoulder to shoulder, our sandals striking the cobbled street at the front of the Guildhouse. The morning sun was bright on the wet cobblestones. A red rag fluttered high on a pole. I had to keep them to my left and follow them as far as they went.

Short steps, long steps, short steps. It was impossible to run in such a crowd, other candidates all around me and the people of the city going about their business in droves as if the race was nothing of any importance.

We ran into the shadow of the old city wall, through a narrow dark gate cut in it, running from shadow into light. A red flag fluttered to my left and the highroad stretched before me, straight as an arrow on a causeway above the fields and paddies. The crowd of runners thinned then, scattered and stretched out in knots and huddles like beads pulled from a string. There was room enough here to run, my stride lengthening, expanding, eating up the road.

I passed copses of trees and people bent to their work in the fields; a black and white dog that sat, tongue lolling, watching me as I ran past. Candidates ahead of me, candidates behind me and the red flags always to my left. Six flags passed but I did not how many were left. There were so many other runners ahead of me, so many. One of them would win and I would have to return to Clappa in shame, rejected by the Guild.

Fear pushed and buffeted me and I picked up my speed. I ran in fury and rage. It was mine. They would not take this from me. I would run past them all and come in triumph to the Guildhouse. Then they would see. They would see that I was worthy and accept me. They could not turn their faces from me then.

I ran faster, past the fluttering red flags. Other candidates were far ahead of me, running as the sun shimmered on the road. I pushed myself harder still. The sun beat on the anvil of my head. Sweat dripped down my face. Ran into my eyes and stung. My legs trembled and my shoulders ached. My breath was harsh and dry in my mouth. It burned in my lungs. Stabbed me in the side. Then it struck me. The pain was a mountain I could not climb. I could not maintain this pace. Desire was not enough. I was alone. I had lost. I would be left howling on the highroad, like a strayed dog.

It's all in the breath, child. Let the legs follow the breath.

I remembered what Guildsman Eochair had said. He had been kind to me and I had no other advice to follow, so I calmed and steadied myself, breathing all the while. In, out, in, out, in, out. As I breathed, I ran more slowly, keeping pace with my breath. In, out, in, out, in, out. And as I ran I prayed, always the same prayer. May the guild accept me, may the guild accept me, may the guild accept me. Breath and blood, lungs and heart, arms and legs and above it all, my prayer, all pounding in time, a steady rhythm like the Year's Turn drums that beat all night.

The world shrank to breath and prayer, a steady pulse like the beat of a living heart and I ran in time to it. I gazed inward, felt the breath of the Mother flow through me, felt the earth pulse beneath my feet as I ran to its eternal rhythm. I breathed and was the breath in the nostrils of the Mother.

All my desires fell away. Childish things, I left them behind in the dust of the road. To run was enough, without beginning, without end, the eternal now. Joy filled my mind, suffused my body. The landscape seemed to flow past me, distant and abstracted. I ran on and on.

Then I came to a place where there were knots and huddles of people by the side of the road, a grey, granite building to their backs, a red flag whipping in the breeze. The Mother held me lightly in the palm of her hand, her breath filling me. The road stretched before me and so I ran on.

I could hear feet hitting the road behind me. Other candidates, no doubt, but I did not care. My feet flew. I could run forever.

"Candidate Ean, Candidate Ean."

The voice broke in, insistent, shouting, tearing me from my rhythm. The drumbeat of joy within me faltered and fell silent.

"Stop, stop. It's done. The race is over."

I could feel a trickle of sweat run down my face. Lost, gone. I would never feel such joy again. I felt like weeping in despair. Why had they not left me to run on? There was a hand on my arm.

"Candidate Ean?"

It was Guildsman Eochair and a sharp-featured guildsister, peering into my face like half-starved dogs.

"See, I told you it was so."

"Aye, Eochair," she answered, "but you cannot blame me for doubting you."

"But you see now?"

"Surely. Clear as day."

A great wave of weariness swept over me. I stood bemused, befuddled, swaying in the dust of the road, legs trembling beneath me, tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth, grief at what I had lost piercing me.

"She'll fall! Take her arm."

Each of them took an arm and thus supporting me brought me along the road, talking to me all the while like I was a sick child.

"Not to worry. Not far now. Only a few more yards. Almost there."

I shuffled along the road like an old woman, where once I had ran. The joy was gone, leaving only pain.

"To reach the place of endurance, Eochair. And on the Candidate Race! Is it any wonder that I didn't believe you?"

"The place of endurance, untrained, unskilled." Eochair was laughing out loud to my right, his hand squeezing my arm. "Good runners from Cnoc Ru. Ha! Always has been."



Through bog and marsh, high road and glen
Through the valley of tears, she ran.
Death behind her, pain before her
Grief at her shoulder, but still she ran.

Bard File

3 comments:

  1. That was a good story. Your description of Ean's running put the reader right there with her. Good job!

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  2. The tension built up surprisingly well. You did a wonderful job of putting me in the same psychic space as Ean; I worried with her!

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  3. A great story, wonderful writing, left me wanting more. Kudos!
    A.D.Nohr

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