Today is Fiction Tuesday! If you’d like to catch up on this story, Welcome to the Valleys, the first section can be found at this link
The Riverside guard, Steve, led their party through several back alleys and short streets on the way to their animals. Between the mist of the rain and the sharp twists and turns, by the time they arrived Jeremy was utterly lost.
They were finally reunited with their animals in a tight alley. Several evertorches glowed overhead, giving the scene an other-worldly appearance. Other than the two Riverside guards who had been watching their animals, the alley appeared abandoned.
Steve spoke briefly with the two animal-minders and returned to address Walter. “I’m going to have to leave you here, Senator. I’m sorry, but Captain Alec requires my presence at the bridge.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No,” replied Steve, shaking his head. “At least, not yet. It appears a troop of First Run guards is camped on their side of the river, the Captain doesn’t want ‘them to have an opportunity to enter the city unspotted.”
Michael stepped forward, “Are there other crossing points which need to be watched?”
Steve shrugged. “They could always get in boats, I guess. But they aren’t the most subtle people over there, we’d hear them long before they arrived. Besides, the docks are watched even better than the bridges.”
“I didn’t realize your troop was that large.”
“It isn’t,” Steve grinned. “But the shippers and fishermen along the docks don’t much like the First Run guards. They are pretty hard on side-deals.”
Michael frowned, “You mean smuggling.”
“I mean side deals. They want to transport goods from Riverside to The Ravine? We charge a small fee and let them. It keeps boaters employed and helps us fund town upkeep. Licenses for shippers aren’t cheap, particularly when you have to have a different one for each product you ship.”
Steve held up his hand, “Look, Captain, I know you mean well – but you aren’t from around here. The Cracks are terrified of the River taking money way from their precious roads, and try to make sure people don’t use it for transport. But we don’t agree, and let’s just leave it at that? You’ve got to be going.”
Steve turned to Walter, “Senator, the way out of Riverside ought to be clear for you. But if you run into any trouble the Captain’s got some men staying out of sight and following along. Just in case. When you get to the second light someone should be there to report on what you’ll find up ahead.”
“Thank you, Patroller. And tell Alec I appreciate the help.”
“Just remember who helped you when you’re up with The Cracks again.”
Walter smiled. “Is that message from you or your captain?”
He shrugged, “Let’s just say it’s from Riverside.”
Walter held out his hand, which Steve took. “Very well. And I will not forget who my friends are.”
Steve nodded, but added, “We’ll see,” as he turned and left the Alley. The two guards who’d been watching their animals accompanied him.
The party was now left alone, shivering and damp in the misty rain. Each wore concern upon their face. Walter motioned to Jeremy, “Lad, I want you up with me, alright?” As Jeremy sidled up to Walter the old trader continued, “I can’t say I’m pleased with our travel arrangements, but Merkot hasn’t left us much choice. At this point I can’t say for certain what we’ll find once we get to The Ravine, and things may have changed even since Kaitlyn came out to meet with us.
“Ama, Jeremy, and I are committed to reaching The Ravine. The rest of you are all here of your own volition. If you want to remain in Riverside, I’m sure Alec would be able to give you some shelter and meaningful work. I’d understand if you feel the need to remain behind.”
It was Terrin who spoke first. “I’m not sure what good staying behind would be, Senator. According to my own troop I’m a wanted man, and the only place I can clear my name is at the Senate. I will not live in the shadows, nor will I ask my family to hide forever.”
“And if the Senate doesn’t exist by the time we arrive?”
“Then at least I’ll be able to condemn Merkot out in the open.”
“Well, said, Terrin,” added Michael. “As you know, sir, my family lives near The Ravine. Even if I hadn’t committed myself to your safety I would have travelled back there at any rate. I am coming with you.”
Walter nodded, “And you, Talum?”
The healer was taken slightly off guard by Walter’s address. “What? Oh, me? Well, this is my research, you know. I can’t abandon a project which is under way. I have to be present to observe Jeremy’s interactions with Sheilok.”
Ama raised her eyebrows. “And is there any other reason?”
“Hmm? Well, yes. Senator Merkot is a danger to The Valleys and needs to be confronted. But I thought I wouldn’t need to point that out.”
Ama smiled, “Sometimes, Talum, it’s good to state the obvious.”
“Really? I’ll have to remember that.”
“Fine, Talum. You do that,” cut in Walter. “Now, if we’re all committed to coming along, I suggest we get moving.”
Walter, with Jeremy at his side, led their party out of the Alley and on to a wider street. There were a few people walking in the misty night, but the avenue was mostly empty.
“I couldn’t ask for a worse night to have rain,” grumped Walter. “On a nice night Riverside’s streets are much more full, but now everyone’s inside keeping dry.”
Jeremy, who was becoming increasingly damp and uncomfortable, replied, “I don’t blame them.”
“Neither do I, but it would have made for much better cover on our way out of town. As it is, we don’t have much of a chance exiting Riverside without being spotted.”
“We could split up. Wouldn’t that make us less obvious?”
Walter nodded. “Yes, but I’m not splitting us up again if we can help it. You didn’t see the confrontation at the bridge, lad, but I have to say it rattled me.”
“Was it that bad?”
“It was a near thing. Riverside’s always been the over-ripe melon in the Inner Valleys, but they’ve always been pretty much left alone to their own devices. Merkot seems to want that unspoken agreement to end, and the people here will not allow that to happen without a fight. It was all Alec could do to keep his guards from charging the First Run guards which were demanding entry.”
“Is this all happening because of me?” Asked Jeremy. In a way he was shocked at his own question, to his ears it sounded like the concern of an insecure child, but the fear it voiced had been growing in him for some time.
“What? Why would you ask that?”
“It’s just, the closer I get to The Ravine the more things seem to be falling apart.”
“I could make the same assertion about me, lad. If Talum and Michael have their timeline correct, things have been falling apart ever since I began my journey toward the Inner Valleys.”
“Well, you can guess all you want, but I know. Everything that’s happening is not your fault, and it ain’t my fault either.” Jeremy grinned as Walter slipped back into his assumed costal accent.
Walter sighed. “The truth is, it’s not even Merkot’s fault, though he’s our prime villain. He’s just a product of a closed-in and frightened system. He’s got to be dealt with, but the system which made the likes of him needs to be altered.”
As Walter spoke they came upon a park which opened up toa view of the river. On a nice day Jeremy was certain the park offered a stunning view, but between the surreal mist and his current circumstances the opening left him feeling suddenly exposed. The bridge they had crossed earlier that day extended into midst some distance behind them. Across the river Jeremy could make out the glow of dozens of evertorches, and heard the echo of movement sounds crossed the river. The troop sent to investigate Riverside was apparently getting ready to move. Walter stopped briefly and put his arm across Jeremy’s shoulders as he looked out across the divide.
“I just hope we have enough time.”