As the group grew nearer to Water Gap’s main gate Jeremy began to notice some familiar sites. Homes faded to the background, and the shops and cafes he’d noticed his first night in the town replaced them. He wished again he would have some time to further explore the city. As the street became wider and the town’s wall loomed larger, however, he knew his time here was coming to an end.
At last he spotted the stables owned by Walter’s friend, Raleigh. Walter’s familiar wagons were already prepared for departure, with several horses latched to the trader’s livelihood.
“There you are, Old Fox! Time is getting on, sir, time is getting on! I’d almost sent a runner to remind you of your own plans!” Though the words may have communicated a slight annoyance, Raleigh’s face was filled with humor and openness.
Walter grunted with a smile. “I’m here right on time, Raleigh, as ya know already. Now, what do I owe you for the boarding?”
Raleigh held up his hands. “Ah, Walter, I do enjoy taking your money, that’s true. But the price has been paid.”
Walter’s eyes narrowed in shrewd recognition. He turned to Ama with an accusatory stare. She met his gaze with a sweet, but hard, smile.
“I pay my own way, Meddle, you know that.”
“Yes, well, just this once I felt it prudent to make arrangements in advance. I’d like to be off, and twenty minutes of you haggling with Raleigh over feed seemed to be a waste of my morning.”
Raleigh exploded in laughter. “Twenty minutes! Oh, Healer Ama, twenty minutes would be a record! Last time the Old Fox left me he haggled for over an hour about some bit of nonsense or another.”
“It wasn’t even an hour, and some of my merchandise was damaged. I ain’t payin’ top coin to see my wares broke!”
Raleigh, to Jeremy’s great surprise, addressed the youth in his response, “Are you sure you want to go with the Old Fox here, young sir? Break his favorite cooking pot an you’ll never live it down!”
Jeremy smiled, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“It was more than the cooking pot, old friend, but as it seems I owe you nothing today we can argue this some other time.”
“As you say, old friend, as you say. Safe journeys to you.” He then turned to Jeremy and whispered, “And may the pathways be ever open to you.”
Jeremy’s eyes opened wide for a moment, wondering if Raleigh had somehow discovered his secret. When he met the stable-keepers eyes, his fears were confirmed. Raleigh acknowledged Jeremy with a slight wink and raised a single finger to his lips as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep this quiet.” Walter and Ama didn’t seem to notice the exchange, as they were both busy examining the horses and carts.
When all was settled to Walter’s satisfaction the small group hastened from the main gate, but quickly turned toward the West, where The Boulevard continued it’s course. So tired had Jeremy been his first night in The Valleys he hadn’t even noticed Walter steer them off the main road into town. Now, as he looked toward the imposing mountain directly in their path, he was again struck by the enormity of the natural obstacle.
“I still don’t see how we’re going to get getting over that mountain. Does The Boulevard go around it?”
“Ah, good eye, Lad! No, The Boulevard doesn’t go ‘round natural obstacles if it can be avoided. At any rate, it ain’t practical here. The mountains go on for miles in either direction and the jungle ain’t an easy place to make roads.”
Shocked by the word “jungle” Jeremy took his first real glance at the forest off to his left. Whereas the woods in which he had woken up were gentle and lush, the mass of vegetation near Water Gap seemed every bit as imposing as the mountains themselves. So thick was the mass he was shocked enough had been carved out for the road and nearby farms to the south, much less the town itself. For the first time, Jeremy felt himself impressed by what the people of The Valleys had built for themselves. He came back from his mental reflection to hear Ama and Walter speaking.
“Lucky we left when we did, Ama. The Council has insight, but they’re also a bit dense, if you understand my meaning.”
“Yes, Walter, I do. But can you hardly blame them?” Ama then put her arm around Jeremy’s shoulder, clearly assuming he’d been listening to the conversation. “Jeremy is the very validation of what Seekers believe.”
“Wait. What are you both talking about?”
Walter chuckled, “Got your head in the jungle, huh? We were talkin’ about Raleigh’s little comment on our way out of Water Gap.”
“You heard that?”
“Of course we heard it! Raleigh is about as subtle as an evertorch in a dark room! He just couldn’t help himself.”
“Buy why didn’t you say anything?”
Ama, arm still around Jeremy’s shoulders, responded, “Because we didn’t want to bring any more attention to it than Raleigh already did. There were probably more Seekers around, watching you leave. Had we made a fuss it may have been too much to ask them to remain passive observers.”
“You mean they’re like the Council? They’re looking for their past?”
“There’re lookin’ for someone like you, lad, to tell ‘em where they’re from and what they’re supposed ta be doin’.”
Jeremy rubbed his temples. “Someone like me? I don’t even know where I’m from. How am I supposed to tell them anything?”
“I have a feeling, Jeremy, that whatever purpose you came to fulfill will become clear. Eventually. Until then, it would be best if the Seekers curb their enthusiasm. I’ll send them a letter tonight, reminding the council of their promises to you.”
“All, right, we can complain about the Seekers later. Look up lad, and see where we’re headin’.”
Jeremy looked up The Boulevard and saw the road begin to switch back and forth up the mountain side. Some way up the mountain side was formed a gaping hole. Even from a distance Jeremy could make out people heading up the switchbacks, and entering into the mountain’s gaping mouth. He had his answer, they didn’t need to go over the mountain. They were heading under it.