The party walked for several hours, entertained only by the rhythmic echoes of the horseshoes striking the paved road. No one seemed prone to speak, as though leaving Shelter was a time for mournful reflection – even Walter was silent.
As they approached the end of the tunnel, however, more and more traffic began to pass them, traveling in the opposite direction. What began as a trickle soon became a steady stream of people. Many merchants were making their way to shelter, several of whom knew Walter, who stopped several times for short chats. Also in the stream were what Jeremy assumed were families making their way to Shelter to enjoy its offerings. The tunnel soon became so crowded that their group had to stop frequently to allow a party to move back into the opposing lane after crossing into the outgoing pathway, causing grumbling by all parties.
“Is it always this busy?”
“Yah, lad, it is. At least at this time of th’ day. Folks want to get to Shelter as soon as they can so they get more time to enjoy the place.”
“They all seem so unhappy.” As Jeremy said this he was forced to stop as yet another disgruntled party had drifted over into their path, and people vented their frustration on the offenders.
“Lad, that’s one of the reasons I can’t stand Shelter. These folks make ‘emselves miserable for hours to get there as early as possible. It takes most of ‘em days just ta calm down again.”
“But it wasn’t bad coming from Water Gap. We were practically the only people on the path.”
“Ah, well, you do get a bit of this backup comin’ the other direction. But nothin’ like this. Besides, we left late, if you get my meaning. We missed the rush.”
“More people live in the Inner Valleys, Jeremy, so the backup is worse from that direction.”
“I don’t think I’d like it much.”
“Why do ya think I come from the other direction, lad?”
“Where is all the traffic our direction? All these people have to come back, right?”
Walter chuckled. “We left early. The bakeries were barely open. Folks like to wake up, eat a last breakfast, and then be off. A couple a miles back, ya got a nice backup like this heading out of Shelter.”
“It sounds terrible.”
Walter shrugged. “People are used to it, lad. It doesn’t make an ounce a sense, but it’s what they know.”
“And some would say the wonders of Shelter are worth the trouble of traveling there, Old Fox.”
“I never said people had sense, Meddle.”
Ama took a deep breath and, closing her eyes in mock pain, shook her head. Jeremy and Walter laughed at her turmoil, causing several people in the opposite lane to glare at them jealously.
By the time another hour had gone by, the line of people moving toward Shelter had dried up. Remembering how his own departure into the tunnel was considered “late” Jeremy didn’t bother asking why this was so. He assumed there must have been a natural cut off time for travelers to enter the tunnel, as no one wanted to be en route after dark. As he glanced up and caught a flicker of shadow marching across an evertorch, he couldn’t blame them. Being in the tunnel after night fall didn’t appeal to him, either. The group walked on, and the tunnel began to angle down slightly. The temperature also increased.
“Not long now, lad.” Walter put his arm around Jeremy’s shoulders and gave him a quick hug of encouragement. “Soon this tunnel will end and th’ real fun will begin.”
“Yes, and don’t you think you ought to get ready for it, Old Fox?”
“What’s that supposed ta mean?”
Ama rolled her eyes. “I mean, Walter, that ridiculous accent you pretend to have.”
“What do ya mean ‘pretend?’ This is how Coastlanders do their talking!”
“Yes, Old Fox, but you aren’t from the Coast. People along The Boulevard and out by the Coast appreciate you trying to fit it, they really do. But you’re back in the Inner Valleys now, Walter. Trying to sound as though you’re from the backwoods isn’t going to serve you well.”
Jeremy stopped. “Wait a minute. That’s not you really talk, Walter?”
Walter feigned warding off a headache with his hand as he, too, came to a stop. “Ya see what ya did, Meddle? You confused him!”
Ama’s eyes angled with mischievous glee as she laughed. “No more you’re slipping in and out of your feeble attempt to sound ‘folksy’ did, Old Fox.”
“I just thought he had some odd accent that sounded different sometimes.”
Walter made a face, “I thought I was improving.”
Ama, still grinning, placed her arm around Walter’s shoulder in a mirror of the embrace he had just given Jeremy. “You are improving, Walter. But you’re home now, you don’t need to try here.”
“The Inner Valleys are not ‘home,’ Ama, you know that. I’m not coming here to play their games.”
“You’re from the Inner Valleys, Walter?”
“Ya…” Walter noticed Ama’s smirk. “Yes, I am, lad. I grew up in The Ravine, not four streets away from Ama.”
“But, I don’t understand, why would you leave?”
“Well, lad, we’ll have to save that for another day. Maybe you’ll see why yourself after we spend some time there, if ya get my meaning.”
“I still want to hear the story!”
“All in good time, lad. All in good time.” He motioned for the others forward and soon they were strolling along the tunnel once more. The light became increasingly bright as they moved forward, and the honey glow of the evertorches was exchanged with brilliant sunlight flooding into the tunnel. Then, abruptly, they stepped out of the tunnel and into the open air. Jeremy stopped as he took in what he was seeing.
They had emerged from the mountainside atop a massive bridge, which continued the road in a downward slope over a ravine. Several hundred yards ahead the land rise up to meet the road, at which point Jeremy could make out gates similar to those barring the tunnel’s opposite entrance. Buildings were clustered near the opposite edge of the ravine, and Jeremy could hear the white noise of a population center in the distance.
What struck him most, however, was the view. Watergap existed as a cultivated oasis in the midst of dense forest and jungle. Shelter was a secluded underground realm. The Inner Valleys, however, were another world altogether. Small lots of trees dotted the landscape but dominating the picture was mile after mile of cultivated farmland. The shadow of the mountain was already beginning to creep over the nearer fields, but this only served to make the landscape all the more appealing – as if nothing would ever be able cast such a bright and airy place completely into darkness.
Ama placed her hands on Jeremy’s shoulders and squeezed. “Welcome to the Inner Valleys, Jeremy.”