“Captain, I hope you will use your discretion about what you just heard.”
Michael turned to Walter in shock. “Sir, I know you’ve been gone a long time, but I hope you understand not everyone who holds authority in the Inner Valleys is corrupt. It is clear this young man is quite special, and also clear you wish to keep him hidden for the time-being. I will not betray a confidence of people I have taken under my care. Particularly a party you are connected with.”
Walter stood in silence for a moment, and then nodded subtly. “Captain, you have my apologies. I have been gone a long time, too long perhaps. Even if I hadn’t been able to make myself trust you, I should’ve listened to the lad. You are a brown man, through and through.”
Michael snapped to attention and saluted. “Yes sir. And what are your orders?”
Walter turned his head and noticed some nearby onlookers taking an interest in Michael’s salute. The uncomfortable look Jeremy noticed earlier returned to his eyes and the old trader motioned with his hand for Michael to stand at ease. “My orders, Captain, are to cut that out for now.”
Michael opened his mouth to speak, but Ama cut him off. “Michael, I know how you feel honor bound to treat Walter with every respect he deserves. But it would be good if not everyone knew who you were accompanying.” She motioned to some of the bystanders, still gazing curiously at their party.
Michael followed Ama’s motion and notice the onlookers himself. He frowned and nodded. “I understand, Healer Ama.” He then turned to Walter and gave him a wry smile. “I will use my discretion.”
Walter placed his hands on Michael’s shoulders and smiled. “Good man. Now, when it comes to dealing with any pushy upstarts, I am the Old Fox and people better jump to.”
Michael beamed with satisfaction. “I will look forward to that, sir!”
“And just one other thing, Captain. My name is Walter.” The old trader lifted his hand from the guard’s shoulder and held it out for him to take. Michael paused for a moment, then reached out can clasped Walter’s hand with his own.
“And my name is Michael. I am honored to accompany you.”
“We’re glad to have you. You all set?”
Michael patted his pack and slung it over his shoulder. “I am.”
“Then let’s be off.” He took the reins of the lead pack horse and led their party out from the gateway settlement. They passed unimpeded, but Jeremy noticed many heads turned to watch their group as they departed.
The party walked for an hour or so in relative silence. It was now past mid-day, and the Sun was beginning to make it’s descent toward the horizon. They walked at a brisk, but comfortable, pace and Jeremy took the time to examine his surroundings. On either side of The Boulevard a line of evertorches was placed, standing on pillars next to the road. Beyond the line of torches were well cultivated fields, orchards, and vineyards – teeming with workers performing the various tasks common to farm life. To Jeremy’s mind, they appeared happy. Workers sang together as they pruned vines or lounged happily under various fruit trees, full baskets sitting next to them as they smiled and drank. The idyllic scenes through which he walked stood in stark contrast with the welcome he’d received when he emerged from the tunnel and the purple hue with which everything was cast.
“Is this your first time to the Inner Valleys?” Jeremy shook his head in surprise. Michael had maneuvered over to him while the young man was lost in his thoughts. The question brought him back to the present.
Michael held out his hand. “I have not introduced myself, and for that I apologize. Michael.”
Jeremy extended his own hand. “My name is Jeremy.”
Michael nodded with a slight smile. “So what do you think of The Inner Valleys, Jeremy?”
Jeremy took a moment to collect his thoughts. As the party continued one his head followed several young children, laughing and running through a field of corn. When he could no longer track them without turning around he turned back to Michael and spoke. “It’s different. I mean, the view from the tunnel was beautiful, but our greeting was ugly. And all the things you and Walter have talked about made me think I’d find people here tense or miserable. But all I see is beauty and peacefulness.”
“But you know it’s not all peaceful, don’t you?”
Walter called over this shoulder. “Go ahead, lad, Michael’s thrown in with us. He might as well get to know you.”
Jeremy shrugged and nodded. “Well, yes.”
“When Healer Ama told you to concentrate on me she told you the colors won’t harm you. When you open your senses, what color are you seeing?”
Jeremy swallowed. “Purple. I see purple.”
Michael’s eyes opened in shock. “The color of war? Where? Near the gate? Along the road? Where are you seeing it?”
Walter cut in. “You know, Michael, perhaps we should save this discussion for later.”
Michael nodded gravely, but Ama shook her head. “No, Old Fox, I believe your first instincts were correct. Michael asks good questions, and they should be answered. Jeremy, tell Michael what you see, please.”
Jeremy closed his eyes and sighed. “Everywhere. Ever since I came out of the tunnel when I close my eyes all I see is purple.”
Michael’s eyes widened. “Over the whole of the Inner Valleys? How can you see so far?”
“Jeremy may be the most unique person in all of The Valley’s, Michael. His ability to see colors is beyond what many healers train years to achieve. This is part of the reason why we are bringing him to The Ravine.”
“And there are other reasons as well, I am assuming.”
“Yes, but Meddle here will leave those to be discussed later. Won’t you, Meddle?”
Ama nodded in acceptance. “As you wish, Walter.”
“But, Walter, surely if this young man is seeing the color of war you should take him away from the Inner Valleys. He’s confirming what I’ve feared for some time. War between the Inner and Outer Valleys is inevitable!”
“No, I don’t think it is.”
Michael turned again toward Jeremy. “You don’t?”
“No. I wasn’t used to it yet, but I don’t remember seeing purple out in Water Gap, or along The Boulevard as I was traveling with Walter. I didn’t even see it in Shelter, and that’s half way through the mountains. I started seeing it when I came out of the tunnel.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think all of The Valleys are in danger, but the Inner Valleys is where the trouble is going to really appear.” Jeremy stopped and watched as several workers carried baskets of grapes away from the vines, smiling and singing a tune as they went. “And I’m going to do everything I can to keep keep it from happening.”