He paused for a moment to catch his breath. Standing in the tall grass, hands on his knees he gulped in air. He tried to be as quiet as he could, but his lungs didn’t care; they bellowed and wheezed as they tried desperately to infuse his body with oxygen. He had been running for what seemed like hours.
His reckless flight had taken him past burned out and broken-down husks of buildings. The rubble rising up and threatening to trip him up and take him down. He could swear that the hunks of concrete and mortar moved with a purpose. It was as if the buildings themselves were seeking revenge on one of the beings that caused their demise. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t directly responsible for their destruction. It had been two hundred years since the war to end all wars had left the world a broken and bitter ruin. No, they just wanted their pound of flesh from anything on two legs.
Here in the tall, thick grass he felt a bit safer. Here was concealment. Here it was quiet. The shouting, the frantic barking of the hounds and the pounding of the thick soled boots of the officers that chased him were far behind.
“You stupid fucking idiot!” he yelled into the still night air.
Anger and frustration built up quickly in his chest and he punched out at the only thing that was near. The tip of the grass burst into a cloud of fluff and seed, covering him like snow.
“What were you thinking? Where was your training? All of those endless hours pouring over manuals and rule books, what fucking good did that do? In 2 seconds flat you ruined it all.”
Mark Joffrey was a young soldier taking part in an emissary group sent from the River Commune to the Kingdom of the Six seeking better trade deals between the areas. Once the war was over, the few unlucky survivors had settled into various pockets around the globe, trying their best to recreate some semblance of society. They grew in isolation. Some had governments that were democratically elected while others were full out dictatorships and the best that anyone could hope for was that their leader or leaders remained sane, that the radiation sickness that still lingered didn’t suddenly turn them into raving lunatics that murdered their citizens. Mark had heard a rumour that is what happened in New York, thousands of people shot dead in the streets and in their homes because their King had become convinced everyone was out to get him.
Each area had their own rules and regulations and that is why everyone who was part of the emissary had to study. However, somethings are so ingrained that knowing the rules and following them are two very separate things.
Mark’s rest was brief, ended by the distant baying of the hounds on his trail.
He ran on, another grueling hour went by, this time past rows of big houses looking sad and abandoned. Sentinels in the night, casting accusations of their neglect at anyone passing by.
Even with his youth and training Mark’s stamina was quickly running out. He ran on as best he could, the sounds of his pursuers inching ever closer with each passing kilometre.
Bursting out of a stand of trees Mark pulled up short. In front of him was the biggest body of water he had ever seen. A seemingly endless sea that stretched out to the horizon. White capped waves assaulted the rocky shore with plumes of spray and a ragged roar.
He stood there in awe, the smell of fish ripe in his nostrils. The moon high above reflected its ghostly image on the black water in the distance. It was beautiful and serene, much more incredible than anything he could ever have imagined.
Mark felt as if he could have stood there forever. For the first time in his short life he knew peace and tranquility. The sounds, the smells and the sights all combined in that moment and it made Mark wonder if this is what it was all about. Not the politics and the absolute power of men. Nature in all its splendour…that was the truth they should be seeking.
The magic of the moment was ruined when a soldier used the butt of his rifle to hit Mark in the back of the leg, driving him to his knees.
He looked up into the eyes of a soldier in a blood red uniform, machine gun strapped diagonally across his chest.
“Son, do you know how much trouble you’re in?”
Mark looked around at the men surrounding him. There were half a dozen well armed soldiers, three holding the leashes of the hounds that had tracked him for hours. They were pulling on their leads so tightly that they were up on two legs, snarling and slathering, frantic to get at their prey.
“Of course I do, that’s why I ran.” Mark replied with defeat in his voice. His mind drifted back to that moment in the square. He stood with his buddies, on a break while the royal gala signifying their welcome played on in the garden behind them. Just one moment, that’s all it took. One second of stupidity. His mind’s eye traced that cigarette butt through the air, the heater glowing brightly as it arced from his fingertips to hit the ground in an explosion of sparks that went off like tiny fireworks, mimicking the ones bursting high above in the sky. Those overhead were lights of celebration, the ones on the ground lights heralding his doom.
“Do you know what the punishment for littering is in our fair Kingdom?” the red clad soldier asked.
Mark knew it all too well. All he could do was look on in despair as the soldier solemnly and slowly took his gun in his hands. The soldier shook his head, eyes downcast as he continued with regret hanging thick in the air.