I stood, solid and resolute, the posture of a perfect soldier. The first rays of morning sun were breaking through the treetops, illuminating the faces of the silhouetted bodies surrounding me. My only companions on the frigid, miserable night march had been my worn leather shoes protecting my aching feet, and the glowing moon shrouded in clouds. Our force had wearily pushed into the darkness, emerging from the seemingly endless journey unscathed. But at daybreak I did not share in my comrades' relief. My thoughts were filled with philosophical questions; contemplating reason and purpose. No, you mustn't doubt yourself. I am supposed to be here. I am meant to be here. Essentially, I was just another youngster thrown to the wolves in the colonies, overlooked in the endless quest for land and power.
The Colonel strode down the line, scrutinizing each soldier as he passed. I shuffled nervously, maintaining the proper stance. I feared the Colonel's unrelenting stare more than the Indians who wanted my scalp. A breeze swirled through the column, taking with it the mysterious fog that had cloaked the army.
The regal Colonel Freely strode poignantly to the couriers at his disposal. His stoic face was mostly hidden by the looming shadows. I stared, entranced by the shiny brass buttons on his freshly pressed, vibrant red coat. Though his dress would've likely cost me a year's pay, I reminded myself not to be intimidated.
He tilted his head ever so slightly, eyeing me dubiously, as if searching for weakness. "Dismissed! All except for you, private." I swallowed hard as he eyed me. He came closer. The stench of stale sweat mixed with perfume was overpowering. He relayed orders with the composed manner of a seasoned officer.
"Private, you are the swiftest and most trustworthy of all my men." His lips curled as he spoke, every word heavy with importance.
"I call upon you to deliver this urgent message into the hands of Colonel Scott, and Colonel Scott only, at Fort Martin, just beyond these woods. According to our Indian scouts, the most direct route can be found through the brush to our east. Follow it until you reach a small brook, then head due south and you'll come upon a clearing. Atop a hill, Fort Martin stands like a grand cathedral. We will be right behind you, arriving late afternoon, if the weather is agreeable and the men march to their ability. I doubt Colonel Scott is expecting us," he snickered.
He seized my wrist and placed the letter in my palm, his piercing stare unwavering. Grasping my hand with both of his, he ordered in a low voice commanding of attention, "Go now, my most trustworthy runner. Use the talent God has blessed you with. Be swift and safe travels."
"I will deliver the message posthaste, sir!" I assured him with a high-spirited salute. The Colonel returned the salute apathetically before returning to his staff.
I spun around and peered to the east, scrutinizing the underbrush that led to the dense forest. The unforgiving wilderness loomed, and I shuddered with trepidation. I'm a soldier, I reminded myself sternly. I'm a runner. I will do my duty. I placed the prudent letter in my satchel.
With no time to waste, I set off. The sun, barely peeking over the horizon, cut through the towering trees, the dirt path dappled with light. I sped past companies of infantry. Some delivered looks of dismay or pity. Civilians viewed my role as brave, but many of my fellow soldiers took me for a fool. With nothing to protect myself but my wits, many undoubtedly thought I was doomed.
In a matter of minutes I was alone, my rhythmic breathing keeping my pace. I relished the solitude. Gliding across the terrain, the dew-covered grass grazing my ankles, I soon came to the path that led east, a shortcut through enemy territory teeming with savages, allies of the despicable French. My feet carried me quickly along the overgrown game trail, my focus sharpening as I entered a groove, devoid of aching muscles, soreness, and fear. The transition was exhilarating. I traversed the landscape, all the while scanning for landmarks, tracks, and signs of trouble.
Soon I fell deeper into my groove. Oddly, I began to feel as if I was no longer running, but levitating, my soul propelling me through the ancient wood. Continuing my rhythm was paramount to maintaining my precious reserves of energy.
I ran with a purpose, a passion, releasing pent up anxiety with every step. I tapped into deep-seeded emotion to fuel my run; anger towards my controlling father who had pushed me into the army, the stress of living in an unfamiliar land, and, mostly, my hatred for my wretched ex-fiancé who had broken off our engagement just before my ship had sailed. All of this filtered into my run, a perfect therapeutic outlet. Catharsis washed over me every time my soles struck the soft earth.
Gradually, my concentration waned, my thoughts drifting to my past life in London. Relenting to my father's wishes, I eventually volunteered for Her Majesty's Army. Unbeknownst to him, I had no intention of returning home. Secretly, I relished the chance to reinvent myself. No longer was I destined to be a lowly scribe's assistant, but instead a proud protector of the kingdom. I had shed my previous identity, a sheltered and conservative urbanite, and embraced the life of adventure and travel.
The army had whipped me into shape. I soon learned I had a talent and affinity for running. The swift-footed were always in high demand, especially in such treacherous lands in which horses were scarce. Over time I resented my former self, vowing never to return to the city that had shunned me. I thrived in my newfound career. All concern for self-preservation was lost to the greater good, resulting in a liberation of my soul that I hadn't known possible. At long last, I was content. I felt closer to God every time I ran. I had found my calling as a messenger.
Although I had spotted nothing out of the ordinary, my instincts warned me otherwise. I eased from my vigorous pace, slowing to a jog. Frantically, I assessed my surroundings, scanning every bush and tree like prey alerted to the presence of a dangerous predator. Months of practice allowed me to instantly control my breathing for optimal listening. The symphony of nature erupted; a Sparrow's chirp, a gentle rustling of leaves, a twig snapping. I was being hunted! The Indians knew this land well and would use that knowledge to their advantage, thus nullifying my speed. Any hesitation and I would quickly be surrounded, mercilessly scalped, and murdered.
A horrific, blood-curdling war cry echoed out, slicing through the peacefulness. My stomach dropped. The high pitched howl scared me like nothing had before. It was the call of death and its deliverer was near.
I sprinted. I took gigantic leaps, each step propelling me farther. I dared not look back, not wanting to give my pursuers the satisfaction. Sweat poured from my brow, stinging my eyes. Half-blind and racing at full speed, I pushed the intense pace. Eventually, the muscles in my legs began to burn. My lungs cried out for air, but I urged myself to continue. Surely, just a few more yards and I would be out of harm's way.
Then a meek inner voice echoed, You have found your one true love, your passion. The honor of your achievements cannot be taken from you. At last, you have found peace. Could this be the end? Was my subconscious coming to terms with my ultimate demise in this primitive land? I fully expected to be impaled by an arrow at any moment, but the cries of my pursuers drifted farther and farther away. I had done the impossible; I had outrun death.
My treacherous journey continued. Concern morphed to panic as I ventured deeper into the unknown without coming to the brook. Had I become disoriented in the heat of the chase? If I was lost, I was as good as dead. I was beginning to feel overcome with despair, until at last, I came to a babbling brook snaking through the tranquil forest. Every muscle ached and my lungs burned, cramps on both of my sides squeezed like a vice.
I collapsed in a heap on a soft patch of grass at the water's edge. Soaking in the serenity of the clearing, watching the fluttering butterflies, and listening to the trill of the crickets seemed to rejuvenate my resolve. I forced my weary body up and took a swig from my canteen. Thoughts of savages chasing me down and putting a tomahawk through my skull provided enough motivation to spur me on.
I traveled for what must have been miles, striding over fallen timber and high grasses, the bright foliage surrounding me streaking by in a blur. At last, I emerged from the wood to open grassland and rolling hills. Fort Martin stood in the distance, its magnificent wooden towers stretching toward the bright blue sky. My final destination in sight, I quickened my pace. The impressive structure grew more menacing as I approached. It beckoned me, a safe haven and oasis from my plight.
Two sentries spotted me, and called out. I ignored them; their incompetence would only delay my mission.
"Halt! Identify yourself!" the sentry demanded as I approached.
"Imperative message for the Colonel!" I muttered as I raced past the guard. The flustered soldier's reply was muffled by the wind whipping past my ears.
Once through the gaping entrance of the fort, I slowed to a brisk walk as I scanned for the door to the headquarters. I entered into the belly of the fort, passed the armory, and snapped at one of the Colonel's staff when he demanded I state my business. Reluctantly, he granted me entrance. I stumbled into the Colonel's office, exhausted yet relieved I had completed my mission.
The stately Colonel was studying some documents at his desk. He rose to greet me, but I had doubled over in agony, panting like a wild animal, my chest heaving. His youthful, freshly shaven face seemed out of place in the colonies.
"Good Lord boy, it looks like you've been through a war!" he declared with a hint of sarcasm. "Get this boy some drink!" he instructed a servant standing behind him in the shadows.
I shook my head, declining the offer. Gasping, I stood up straight, and managed a feeble salute.
"Your message, sir!"
I removed the letter from my satchel, and handed it to him. He broke the seal expeditiously and scanned the letter, his brow furrowed in thought. Would the message turn the tide of the war? How many lives had I saved by completing my perilous task? Suddenly, the Colonel tilted his head back, chuckled, then crumpled up the letter and tossed it over his shoulder indifferently.
"That bastard, Freely," the Colonel said under his breath. Regaining his composure, he remarked casually, "You'll have a room in which to rest until your unit arrives. Your services are no longer required today. You are dismissed." The Colonel hastily made his exit, and his obedient staff waiting outside the door followed him.
I was left alone, utterly bewildered. Where was his sense of urgency? The message had not spurred him into action but instead seemed to amuse him.
I eyed the crumpled paper warily. Curiosity overcame me. Briefly ignoring my soldierly duty, I went behind the desk, scooped up the letter, and flattened it out. I glanced quickly to the door to insure I was alone.
The honorable Colonel Scott,
My most sincere congratulations on your recent reassignment to Fort Martin. Being in close neighborhood, my men will be arriving by the eve. May I remind you of our wager in London? Regardless of your vexation, I trust you are a man of your word. 'Twas a fool's wager! Alas, your horse lost fairly, of which you have my pity, but you are still bound by honor to comply. My beloved wife and I expect the finest wine as we dine upon the colony's most delectable viands. Expect our arrival in due haste.
Your most obedient servant, Colonel Freely.
I had put my life in jeopardy for a personal correspondence? I stared at my mud-laden shoes, picturing my throbbing feet which had carried me on the improbable journey. Rage should have taken hold, flushing all common sense from my rational mind. But as suddenly as the anger had come, it subsided, suppressed by a soldier's mentality. There was no place for emotion in Her Majesty's Army.
I was relieved and thankful to simply be alive. I dared not speak to anyone of the letter, for fear of treason. A soldier's honor bound me to my duty, judgment be damned. Maintaining my composure, I swiped the letter from the desk. There was nothing more to be done but to focus on my next assignment, whatever it may be.