Michael looked shocked. Walter’s face betrayed a sense of grief. Ama Chuckled, which Jeremy found oddly appropriate.
“I don’t see what’s so funny about this, Meddle.”
Ama gazed sympathetically at her friend. “I’m sorry, Old Fox, but as dearly as you wanted to slink in and out of the Inner Valleys without causing a stir, it appears fate has an equal desire to make sure you don’t have that opportunity.”
“I don’t understand why Tollen would respond that way. He’s never shut the door on travelers before.”
“Walter and Tollen have some history, Michael. They used to work together, after all.”
“Well, yes, I realized that the moment we arrived. But I would have though Tollen would be glad at Walter’s return.”
Walter grunted. “I doubt it. Tollen never forgave me for leaving the Inner Valleys. He thought I’d abandoned my post, even sent me some nasty letters when it was clear I had no intention of returning.”
“But, you left to defend what you thought was right. And your departure sparked much change. Many people here hail you as a hero, sir.”
Walter grunted again. “Well, Michael. Principled I may be, but I’m no hero. Tollen here felt I left him holding the bag. And who knows, maybe he’s right.”
Michael looked as though he was about contradict Walter’s comment, but never got the chance. As he opened his mouth a voice sprang forth from the other side of the door.
“Got there at last, did you?” The door swung open, and Tollen stepped out onto the front stoop. He wore an expression half-way between a friendly grin and a sneer, but motioned the party inside. “Well, come in. It’s late and I’m certainly you haven’t had anything to eat on the way. The Old Fox is many things, generous enough to spring for dinner isn’t one of them.”
Michael entered the entered the home first. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t know…”
“…That me and the Old Fox had some bad blood? That’s alright, son, you had no way of knowing. I don’t talk about him much. This one,” he pointed at a clearly uncomfortable Walter, “should’ve known better than to show up at my door unannounced.”
“I didn’t know you lived near this junction, Tollen.”
“And why would you? It’s not like you’ve ever been by to say hello to an old friend. You haven’t even written.”
“You stopped writing.”
“You stopped responding.”
Ama stepped in-between the bickering men. “Gentlemen, please. I’m sure we can argue over a good meal and by a warm fire.”
Tollen nodded curtly. “Right you are, Ama. You are always welcome to my hospitality. The Old Fox’ll get it, but he’s not welcome to it. Some of us, though, don’t abandon our duty to others.”
“Inside, Old Fox, you can tell me I’m wrong over a pint.” His gaze then softened somewhat as a twinkle appeared in his eyes. “Maybe I’ll even believe you.”
Walter entered the house, followed closely by Ama. Jeremy made to follow, but found his way suddenly blocked by Tollen’s arm. “Hold up a moment, son. Michael is an old student, and I’ve known Walter and Ama longer than I care to admit. You I don’t know, and it’s not right for me to let you into my house before I meet your acquaintance.”
“Oh, Tollen, I’m sorry. I’ve been neglectful. This is…”
“‘Meddle’ is as appropriate nickname as I’ve ever seen, Ama. The boy can speak for himself, I’m sure.”
Jeremy swallowed as he noticed Ama stiffen slightly as she moved further into the house. “Jeremy, sir.” He held out his hand, which Tollen took in a firm grip. “My name is Jeremy.”
“And I’m Tollen, no doubt you’ve heard of me?”
Shaking his head, Jeremy answered, “No sir, I’m sorry, I haven’t.” A look of surprise fell over Tollen’s face, so Jeremy quickly added, “I’ve lost my memory, though, so that doesn’t mean much.”
Tollen stroked his chin in a manner so reminiscent of Walter that the young man almost laughed despite his discomfort. “Did you now? Well, isn’t that interesting? Judging by the way you’re dressed, I’m guessing old Walter picked you up and let you tag along?”
Jeremy nodded silently. To his surprise, Tollen smiled.
“Well, at least that Old Fox hasn’t forgotten everything out there playing ‘common man’ in the Coastlands. He’s still picking up strays.” Tollen placed his arm around Jeremy’s shoulders and guided him into the house. “Let’s get you something to eat, young man, you look like you could use a good meal.”
Tollen guided Jeremy into a large room, where he discovered the rest of his friends seated in comfortable chairs around a long table. Their host motioned for Jeremy to take an open seat by the head of the table, which is where Tollen deposited himself. Tollen raised the earthenware mug by his seat. Bringing it up in salute, he said, “To hospitality, old friends, and new journeys.”
The others raised their own mugs in assent, and took a drink of the liquid inside. Jeremy found the taste not altogether unpleasant – with flavors of sweet and bitter dancing around his tongue, chased by a faint floral aroma. He was unprepared, however, for the slight burning sensation he encountered as he swallowed. He coughed slightly as the liquid descend into his stomach and warmed his insides.
Tollen grinned. “Not used to the Ale of the Inner Valleys, I see. That’s all right son, you’ll get used to it.” He patted Jeremy on the back gently, and the youth returned his smile. Looking into his hosts eyes he decided to speak, “You knew we were coming.”
Tollen’s eyes opened with both shock and delight. “Oh, you figured that out? Well, I can’t say the puzzle was all that difficult, but well done all the same. What tipped it off for you?”
“The table. It’s set for the right number for our group. I’ve also noticed people like to begin their evening meals right after the Sun sets, but there isn’t any food on the table yet.” Jeremy’ stomach growled in protest. “Though I can smell it. You were waiting for us.”
Tollen nodded. “And I suppose you’ve figured out how I knew you were coming?”
“Yes sir. Michael let the guards along The Boulevard know Walter was passing through.”
“That he did, he also said he planned to accompany the Old Fox on the way.”
Walter cut in. “And you naturally assumed he’d bring me here.”
Tollen nodded. “Yes, well, one of us has to keep our eyes open to things.”
“I haven’t become blind, Tollen.”
“You left, Walter. You left when The Valleys needed you the most.”
“You know why I had to. And Michael told me my leaving sparked many of the reforms I’d advocated.”
“And you left me to deal with the work that went along with those reforms as well.”
“I gave my advice, until you stopped writing.”
“We needed your energy!”
Walter remained silent, and Tollen grunted in frustration. Again, the expression was so much like Walter Jeremy had to stifle a chuckle. He wasn’t sure, but he believed Ama had spotted his struggle and, in a manner most unlike the healer, winked.
“It doesn’t matter now. You’re here. I supposed you’ve heard what Merkot’s been up to and come to deal with it?”
Walter shifted uncomfortably. “Well, actually no. I just heard about what Merkot’s been up to this morning.” Tollen’s face hardened once more, and Ama stepped in to relieve her friend.
“Tollen, no one has heard about what Merkot has been up to. I sit with the council at Water Gap, as you know, and we haven’t heard about any of Merkot’s… ‘innovations.’”
Tollen crossed his arms. “Hmph. Well, I guess I can’t be too surprised. Most of what he’s been up to has been subtle. Folks outside the Senate probably weren’t even aware of it. It was only the last couple of weeks that he’s gone to extremes. I guess the merchants who’ve suffered haven’t gotten back to report yet, though they will soon. Once Woodhall finds out about this, there’s going to be trouble.”
“Tollen, what’s he been doing?”
“Oh! Showing an interest now, are we, Old Fox?”
“All right, I’ll stop!” The old man waved a hand in surrender. “I’ll tell you. The last couple of years he’s been remaking the guards in his own image. All subtle at first, of course.”
Michael actually answered. “He taught guards to be afraid of people. At first, a lot of it made sense. After all, the economy of the entire Valleys depends on trade, and Tollen had uncovered a sharp increase in smuggling. So he re-trained the guards to be suspicious of traders, and assume there was the potential for every merchant to be carrying contraband. It wasn’t a big shift, but it changed the way the guards thought about travelers.”
Tollen continued. “From there he used a couple of high-profile brawls, in which several guards were hurt, to extend suspicion on to everyone. When the majority of the brawlers turned out to be from the Outer Settlements, he trained the guard to be especially watchful of folks who from outside the Inner Valleys.”
Ama nodded. “That we had noticed. Travelers were returning with stories of being unnecessarily detained at the tunnel exit for hours, before begin released with no explanation other than, ‘We needed to make certain you we’re going to cause trouble.’ But Senator Kaitlyn addressed it in the Senate and the practice stopped.”
“The practice stopped, Healer Ama, the attitude did not. So much so that when recent directives were issued to treat Outer Valley merchants with almost hostile suspicion, many of the guards who have taken the shield in the past several years felt it was the right step to take. Older guards, such as myself, are finding it more and more difficult to keep the newer ones in line. As you yourselves witnessed.”
“And Michael here probably won’t be a guard much longer if Merkot has his way. He’s stepped out of line too much and let too many folks into the Inner Valleys without ‘proper scrutiny.’ Once guards like him are forced to retire, things are going to get worse. I just wish I knew what caused Merkot to suddenly go for a walk in the dark.”
Michael cleared his throat. “Sir, I believe I may know the answer to that.”
Tollen slapped the table, causing Jeremy to jump in seat. “Good man! You kept your eyes open! What set him off, son?”
Michael shifted his gaze at Walter. “Sir, I think you’ll discover the answer to that question if you ask Walter what did bring him back to the Inner Valleys.”
Tollen didn’t say anything in response. Instead, he fixed Walter with a commanding gaze. The table fell silent until Walter cleared his throat.
“Well, the miners out near Highcliff made a discovery several months ago. I’m here to use it to negotiate with the Senate for full member status in The Valleys.”
“And what did they discover that makes you think they’ll even consider your little plan, Old Fox?”
Walter reached into his tunic and fished out a small stone. He placed it on the table and removed his hand – revealing a deep colored object, sparkling independently from the nearby evertorches.
Tollen’s eyes widened, and Jeremy noticed fear pouring into this gaze. “Portals, man! Do you have any idea what you’ve set in motion?”