As they approached the junction Jeremy saw a group of uniformed guards arguing. The inspector who had confronted Walter on The Boulevard was pointing in their direction and shouting at someone who was shaking his head. The queue of travelers, sensing the disruption, were beginning to grumble at the suddenly distracted officers.
Walter handed Jeremy the rein of the lead pack horse. “You all stay here, I’ll be right back.” Jeremy watched the guards glare at the old trader as he approached. Walter opened his arms wide, and motioned for the guards to lift the arm which had be leveled over the width of the road. When the guard who had been previously shaking his refused, Walter pointed to the badge on his right sleeve. And then to the mass of people waiting to pass through the roadblock. As he pointed at them, the crowd cheered and the guards began to cower.
“I’ve been telling Walter he needed to embrace his office as Senator for years. Now I fear I may he may be overdoing it.”
“You think he’ll get us in trouble?”
Ama shook her head. “No. There are laws which prevent the guards from obstructing Senators as they pursue rounds along the roadways of The Valleys. I just worry he’s making too big a splash.”
“If the guards won’t be able to keep Walter from moving through their inspection, why are they arguing?”
Michael sighed. “The guards of First Run watch over Merkot’s home territory in Meadow Run. They are fiercely loyal to him, and fear his indignation should they fail to uphold his directives. One day, perhaps soon, I’m afraid all the guards will be the same as these.”
The argument by the checkpoint had broken up, and the guards were reluctantly removing their obstruction from the road. The people cheered as traffic surged forward past the junction between First Run and The Boulevard, many of whom shot angry glances at the inspectors as they passed. Walter walked back to the group, shaking his head.
“You seem to have gotten results, Old Fox. I see you haven’t lost your touch.”
“Knowing you, Meddle, you probably thought I was over doing it.” Jeremy couldn’t help himself and let out a snort of laughter. “Figured,” was all he said in acknowledgment.
“I take it we’re free to pass through now?”
“Yes. Though I’m not very thrilled with our prospects moving forward. I’ve half a mind to turn around and march straight to The Ravine today.”
Ama took the reigns from Jeremy and handed them to Walter. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Well, it appears our friend Merkot has convinced certain elements of the Senate that his blockade on First Run was so successful at squashing smuggling that they’ve allowed him to move his little blockade up to this junction.”
“No!” Michael almost shouted the word, drawing looks from nearby travelers. “Blocking travel on the run’s is awful enough. But right of travel on The Boulevard is a fundamental part of our law! How could the Senate agree to such a thing?”
“I don’t know. And I am very eager to find out. At any rate, I pointed out blocking outgoing traffic from the Inner Valleys didn’t fit their little narrative about smuggling. I called a moratorium on this part of the roadblock until the Senate could have a hearing.”
“But incoming traffic is still blocked?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Michael, that’s the best I can do right now. The Senate says smuggling is a problem and, as this is a junction they say it’s in-between the jurisdiction of your guards and those of the First Run.”
“And slowly they’ll creep the roadblock down The Boulevard until Merkot’s guards are all there is left.”
Walter nodded. “That’s my guess, yes.” He started leading their horses toward the junction with First Run. “It appears we’re seeing Merkot’s plans, whatever they really are, in motion. Our little trip just became a great deal more urgent. I need to get to The Ravine. If I wasn’t certain Merkot wasn’t trying to keep me from Meadow Run I wouldn’t bother with this side trip.”
“I know, Walter, but Jeremy needs to speak with Talum. We need to find out what he knows about the Shadows.”
“I know, Meddle. Which is why, if you hadn’t noticed, we’re getting ready to travel down First Run for an appointment with your absent-minded healer.”
As the group approached the point of the juncture, Jeremy was surprised to find very few of the travelers making the right turn on to First Run. Most didn’t even look that way as they walked by, and if they did it was to take notice of which shops lined that point in the road. By the time the party had moved through the non-settlement they were separated from other groups by a significant distance.
“I would have thought more people would have been heading down this way. Why aren’t they?”
“Ah. A good observation, Jeremy,” Michael’s voice spoke from behind.
“Do people not want to go to Meadow Run?”
“No. But there are more direct paths by which people are able to arrive at the town. The next large settlement after the junction is actually The Ravine, and there is a faster route to Meadow Run from there along Second Run. People who travel to Meadow Run in this direction usually do so only because they have business at the junction which demands this route.”
“The road feels kind of lonely.”
“It didn’t used to be, lad. Michael can probably tell you what it was like just a few short weeks ago, before Merkot’s crackdown on so-called smuggling.”
“It true. Traders from all over The Valleys used to travel down this route. They’d pass through the tunnel and swing out to Meadow Run and Riverside before taking Second Run back to The Ravine. Not very long ago, this was the second most travelled road in The Valleys, next to The Boulevard.”
Jeremy glanced forward along the road. He tried to imagine is a a bustling pathway, but after experiencing the roadblock at the junction found he couldn’t. To him, the Inner Valleys were not a place of bustling busyness, they were inhospitable and rotten. The attitudes which he encountered encountered thus far didn’t match with the beauty of the scenery of the landscape.
The farms were well-tended, and he could hear people singing in the distance as they cut hay, or picked fruit from trees. Groups of people laughed as they gathered around water pumps or sat against trees, enjoying the shade. The air was sweet with the scent of flowers, and laughter called out to him on the wind, but these only served to unsettle him more. Whatever was wrong with The Valleys, Jeremy concluded, had it root in it’s inner-most core – and as he heard children laughing he was certain that their time of peace was coming to an end.
Certain he knew what to expect, Jeremy opened his mind for the briefest of moments, so he could look beyond the idyllic scenes all around him and truly see what was going on all around him.
“Ahhhh!!!” He collapsed to the ground with a shout of pain.
“Jeremy!” Ama rushed to his side and placed her hand on his forehead. He felt the calm of her touch rush through him, but his head throbbed with a terrible ache. He sat up, but kept his eyes closed. He rubbed his temples as he panted for breath, Ama’s arms remained around his shoulders.
“What happened, lad? Are you all right?”
He kept his eyes shut as he responded. “Nothing felt right. I mean we’ve had those run ins with the guards, and you all talk about how awful Merkot is, and you told me how the Senate likes to ‘tweak’ people’s personas for the public. It just seems so bad. And he we are walking down this road and there’s farms and orchards and people laughing. The air’s sweet, and it’s all lovely.”
“And?” Ama whispered in his ear as he paused.
“It’s all rotten. I don’t know how I know, but I do. So I opened my mind to see the colors… and that’s when I screamed.”
“What did you see, Lad? What made you scream?”
He shook his head and dared to crack open his eyes as he turned toward Walter. The throbbing in his head increased, but Ama’s touch kept it from becoming blinding. “That’s just it, Walter, I didn’t see anything. It’s all turned purple.”
“You mean it’s all a purple haze. Like you saw when we first passed into the Inner Valleys?”
“No. It’s not a haze. Then I could still see shapes and people and buildings and trees. When I opened my mind just then all I saw was purple. It was if the world had become a wall, and it was all that color.”
Ama turned to Walter. “What does this mean?”
“It means, Meddle, that Talum better have some good answers. Because if we want to stop whatever mess is coming we’re almost out of time.”