Throughout November I’ll be concentrating my posts on Welcome to the Valleys in honor of NaNoWriMo. If you’d like to catch up on this story, the first post of this series can be found at this link
Walter and Michael managed to remove enough of their gear from the packhorses to sling to two guards over the animal’s backs. The sergeant, like his companion, was put to sleep by Ama’s touch. This meant shouldering the unloaded gear in heavy packs, a prospect Jeremy did not find very appealing. Seeing Jeremy’s discomfort, Walter smiled. “Don’t worry, lad, as soon as the Patroller wakes up we’ll dismount him and lighten your burden some.
Jeremy grinned back. “Well, at least we won’t have to carry this all that far. Didn’t the sergeant say he had a squad coming up behind him? We’re sure to run into them soon.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that, lad.”
“You think he was lying?”
Michael responded first. “In all likelihood, yes. I doubt there are any more guards in Meadowrun at all. Senator Merkot has them all working his checkpoint. We’ve more chance of being caught from behind than we have of being blocked from our front.”
“I don’t understand. Wasn’t Walter just going to let them arrest us? Why not just tell them no?”
“Because, Jeremy, the Old Fox is sly,” Ama cut in.
“Lad, I don’t doubt Michael and I could have probably handled these two poor excuses for guards. The Patroller didn’t look like he even wanted to be here. But if we had fought them, someone probably would have been seriously hurt. So I let them think they’d won, and that they’d frightened me with their fabled squad ‘just over the next ridge.’”
“Also, should Walter and I have subdued the one guard on foot, the other would have been able to ride away and actually summon aide. We couldn’t allow that to happen.”
“So, Michael, you and Walter were actually working from a plan? How is that possible? I didn’t hear you!”
Walter actually laughed. “Not precisely. You forget Tollen trained Michael the ins and outs of being a guard. Part of that training deals with being caught in a situation where direct resistance will cause unnecessary injuries.”
“What’s that got to do with you both having a plan?”
Walter chucked again. “Who do you think trained me?”
“Oh. Wait, so you were a guard?”
Walter shrugged. “In a manner of speaking, it’s a long story.”
Michael and Ama grinned. “Tollen will be pleased to see your training hasn’t been forgotten.”
“Yes, well, I doubt Tollen will be completely pleased with anything I do. Though I think we had it pretty much well in-hand. Meddle’s tears helped sell the show.”
Ama bowed. “I am always glad for a chance to boost your ego, Old Fox.”
“I doubt these two sacks would have gotten us twenty yards before we’d relieved them of their mounts had taken them to ride the rest of the way into town. And without anyone getting hurt. That is, if our shadow friend hadn’t decided to ride the rapids.”
A nearby evertorch swirled slowly, as if in apology. Walter noticed the change in the light. “Don’t worry about it, you did your best.”
“But Walter, why would that have worked at all. Isn’t what you and Michael did part of every guard’s training?”
The old trader shrugged and allowed Michael to respond. “The older guards, Jeremy, have had this training. Merkot’s new recruits think about our calling much differently.”
“I believe, Michael, you mean they think about your calling stupidly.”
“That would be my assessment, yes.” When he saw Jeremy was expecting more of a response, Michael continued, “These new guards are trained to intimidate others by using whatever concentrated amount of force they can muster.”
“In other words, lad, they’re a bunch of bullies.”
“Not all of us.”
Walter turned his head to see the junior officer awake on his horse. “Ah, the Patroller is awake. Did you have a nice nap?”
“Pardon, Senator, but I did not.”
“That’s a shame. I can arrange for another one, if you’d like.” He waved Ama over eagerly, but the young guard shook his head.
“No, please. Allow me to walk.”
“All right, if you promise to behave.” Walter brought the party to a halt and helped the guard unsling himself from the pack horse. The party then redistributed the weight in their packs, which was quite a relief to Jeremy.
As the group resumed walking, Ama engaged the guard. “You said not all of Merkot’s guards are bullies. What did you mean?”
“Not all of us are in agreement with Senator Merkot. We try to off-set the damage he is doing, but without getting fired ourselves. If fact, I knew what you were planning, I only hoped I’d still have all my own teeth by the time I was able to explain myself.”
“You had training for situations like the one we were in?”
“No healer. At least, not exactly.” When he dared to look up from the pavement he noticed Ama’s questioning gaze. “My father was in the guards, he taught me a great deal the academy did not.” He looked over at the sergeant and frowned. “I’m sure he would have never gone along with the orders my sergeant was receiving.”
Michael beamed. “You can’t be old Terrin’s son, can you?”
“Yes, sir. I’m Terrin Jr.”
Michael unsheathed a small knife and unbound the young guard’s hands. When Walter began to protest, the captain cut him off. “I don’t mean to overstep my bounds, Senator, but we have nothing to fear from this man.”
“If you’re sure.”
“Yes, Walter, I am.”
“I don’t recognize the name, though.”
Michael shook his head. “You wouldn’t. We called him ‘Old Terrin’ because he came into guarding in this forties. About ten years after you left. His orchards were wiped out in a fire and he decided to pursue another career.”
“As I said, if you vouch for him I’ll trust your decision.” Turning to the young guard, however, he added, “But you might want to consider what orders you follow from here on out, if you catch my meaning.”
Terrin blinked. “Yes Senator.
The party then walked for a few miles in relative silence. It was getting late in the day, and Jeremy began to notice a strange silence ringing out from the nearby fields. Unlike the busy lands which lined The Boulevard, First Run didn’t seem to encourage people enjoy an evertorch-light picnic after dark. In fact, as he looked at his surroundings Jeremy noticed the orchards and fields had an “unkept” look. Fields were sprouting, and the fruit trees were producing. But the paths through the fields were becoming overrun with weeds, and he noticed hay fields which had not been mowed for some time.
Jeremy wasn’t the only one to notice the change in scenery. “Just what is going on here, Patroller?” Walter asked the young guard.
“Sir, we are currently walking though the Meadowrun exclusion zone.”
“What in The Valleys is that?”
“I’d like to know that myself” added Michael.
“It marks the empty zone which separates Meadowrun from the wilds. No settlements of any kinds, nor any kind of active cultivation, is permitted here.” Terrin frowned in shame, “Senator Merkot says it prevents smuggling.”
“I’ll bet. Just how big is this space?”
“It’s seven estates, sir. Which used to have over a thousand people living on them.”
“This keeps getting better.” Turning to Michael, Walter added, “Did you know about this?”
“I didn’t. All we knew about was Merkot’s road block. There’s been no reports about removing people from their estates.”
“Hmmm. I doubt the Senate knows about it, either.”
“But Walter, surely the families who have been removed would have gone to the Senate to protest?”
“I’m not so sure, Meddle.” Walter pointed at the young Patroller. “You, Terrin. What happened to the people who got run off their estates?”
“Most received sizable estates in the West. Out by Plainton. Additionally, they got large amounts of coin to establish their new holdings.”
“And there you have it, the greed of the Inner Valleys undermines our very identity.”
“Walter, I don’t understand.”
“Well, lad, Meadowrun is an important town, but the lands around here are crowded and the markets are saturated with all the produce grown near by. Big estate owners do all right, but there’s a lot more money to be made out West. Most of them would have left years ago if not for one thing.”
“Most of the land out West is owned by the most powerful Senatorial Family in all The Valleys.”
Walter nodded. “Merkot’s. So not only does Merkot get his nice empty space around Meadowrun, which permits him to do pretty much whatever he wants, he gets to make sure it remains empty. With the town isolated, Meadowrun is pretty much his own little fiefdom now.”
“That could be why he doesn’t want you paying a visit, Old Fox.”
“It could be, Meddle, but my stomach says there’s more to it than that. Let’s get moving, I really want to talk to Talum. He’s not exactly doing his job if all this is happening around him and he didn’t let the council know about it.”
“Sadly, Old Fox, I must agree.”
Walter picked up the group’s pace and within an hour they had reached the outskirts of Meadowrun. On the surface it looked to Jeremy much like any of the other settlements which he’d visited in The Valleys. The streets were well laid-out and clean, the buildings were maintained, and he could even hear laugher coming from a nearby restaurant. He did notice one difference, however. When people noticed their group they stopped what they were doing and stared.
No one smiled.
Ama led the group to Talum’s home, a small house on the outskirts of the main town. As she prepared to knock, however, the door to the house opened and a short, skinny man in green robes opened the door. He examined the group for a beat, but then smiled as he spoke. “It’s about time you all got here, Sheilak told me I should have expected you almost a week ago!”