“Meddle, not now. Not here.” Both Walter and Ama’s faces had become white, and several people who passed Walter noticed the chill near their table, drawing confused looks. He then pointed at Jeremy, but shifted his eyes down toward the evertorch on their table. “And as for you, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you need to show some sense. We’re not the only people here, you know.”
The faint shadow in the evertorch sank toward the table, as if sulking. Jeremy noticed several people looking toward him wearing sympathetic expressions. He nodded toward Walter and pursed his lips with a glum expression. With a nod of understanding, those who had witnessed the exchange turned back toward their own meals.
“I’ve had enough of this slop. Meddle, Jeremy, it’s time leave now.”
Ama stood up, as did Jeremy, who muttered a weak, “Yessir” as he did so.
As they moved toward the cafeteria exit, a hand reached out and touched Walter’s elbow. The old trader turned to see a young woman glancing up at him. His eyes softened slightly as he took notice of who was interrupting his departure.
“Sir, I know it’s not my place to comment on how you manage your apprentice. But publicly shaming him like that did seem to be a bit harsh.”
Walter slipped back into what Jeremy had begun to think of as his country accent, “Ma’am, Jeremy here is a good lad, but sometimes forgets his place, if you get my meanin’.”
“Well, even so.”
“Even so, Ma’am, I’m thinkin’ I know what’s best for the lad long run. Worst I ever did ta’him was a quick tongue-lashing, and nothing more. I treat my lads like my own children. Ain’t that right, lad?”
Jeremy looked toward the ground, but answered, “Yessir.”
“Surely I know what’s right for my own lad. He’ll be a great trader someday, and a few tongue-whippin’s won’t hurt him none.”
The woman shrugged. “I must accept your judgement. As you say, he is your lad. Don’t think such behavior is alway going to be acceptable, good trader. Youth like this one are our future, and we will see them treated right.”
Walter stepped back from the woman’s touch. “Noted ma’am. Now if you’ll excuse me, my lad and I need to depart.”
Walter took Jeremy’s arm, displaying a little more force than he actually applied to the young man’s arm. The two then followed Ama out from the cafeteria and made their way to the stables.
As Walter and Jeremy checked the horses’ packs he finally said, “What, was that about?”
Ama glanced back over toward the cafeteria and shook her head. “Walter, I’m not sure. Certainly you did nothing unusual for a trader dealing with his apprentice.”
“She acted like I was going to do violence to the lad!”
“Walter, I did notice a lot of people looking at us after you scolded the shadow. They looked rather upset with you for speaking like that.”
“I felt their disapproval as well, Old Fox, and that worries me.”
“What did you feel, Meddle?”
“I felt as though people’s expectations were being met. You are a trader from the outer settlements, and they expect you to be brutal.”
“And me looking like I was scolding Jeremy just confirmed their suspicions. Is that it?”
Ama nodded. “I do believe so, yes. Something has changed, Walter. Can’t you feel it? It’s ugly.”
“I don’t have your gifts, Meddle, but I haven’t liked what I’ve seen so far. That’s for sure.”
“I feel it.”
Walter and Ama turned to Jeremy.
“What’s that, lad?”
“I feel it, Walter. I’ve felt is since we exited the tunnel, but I didn’t really know what it was. It feels like… it feels like everyone’s tensing their muscles or holding their breath. Or something. I’m not sure how to describe it.”
“You’re doing very well, Jeremy. Surprisingly so, in fact. Can you describe what you are feeling with a color?”
He closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated on the noxious feelings he was experiencing all around him. After a moment he said, “Purple. The color is purple.”
“It appears, Old Fox, that Jeremy is more than even we knew.”
“You don’t mean?”
She nodded. “Yes, Jeremy is both a pathfinder and a healer. Or at least, he will be once he’s trained. He certainly has the gifts.”
“But Meddle, there hasn’t been anyone like that for a thousand years or more!”
Jeremy broke into the conversation. “Wait, people can’t be both a healer and a pathfinder?”
“Well, Jeremy, they can. As Walter pointed out, we haven’t seen the likes of you for over a thousand years.”
“In other words, lad, the last time pathfinder healers roamed The Valleys was during the Extinction War.”
“But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a war, right?”
“Maybe, Jeremy, but the color you have seen doesn’t bode well.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, lad, purple is the color of barely checked rage. The color we have always associate with the Extinction War.”
“The treaty is broken” whispered a voice. The three friends glanced up at an evertorch and saw the shadow, perched in a corner of the mounted light.