Today returns me to my non-NaNoWriMo schedule. By wonderful happenstance, however, this means I shift gears on 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 saluted. “Sir, Captain Alec wanted me to report to you the troop across from the Great Bridge have withdrawn.”
“By the light that’s good news,” exclaimed Ama.
Walter shook his head and sighed. “Not necessarily, Meddle.” Turning back to the guard he added, “I’m assuming the good Captain has sent out scouts to see where this troop has withdrawn.”
The guard nodded. “Yes sir, several scouts were sent down the road toward Meadowrun. The bulk of the the troop is camped at the junction and challenged our scouts when they came up the road.”
“They walked out in the open?”
The guard shrugged. “There was no reason not to, sir. We aren’t the ones causing this friction, and it’s perfectly legal for people to be on the roadways. Besides, had we been caught sneaking around it would only have given Weasel’s pets even more excuse to force their way across the bridge.”
“I understand, Patroller. Thank you. And what did the guards who were sneaking around discover?”
The guard smiled mischievously. “They noticed about a third of the troop…”
“Which is about how many?” Terrin interjected. He had been trailing the group but advanced as they began to converse with the guard at Second Light.
The guard glanced confusedly back at his fellow officer. “Sorry, Patroller, but weren’t you with the First Run Guards? You don’t know how many are in your own troop?”
“Let’s just say things have been in flux since I was forced to resign my post.”
“That tends to happen whenever Weasel’s involved,” the guard agreed. “We couldn’t get a count in the fog and rain, but the Captain puts the total number of First Run Guards around two hundred.”
“Two hundred!” Exclaimed Michael. “Two weeks ago there weren’t three hundred guards in all the Inner Valleys!”
“Well, when you’re so busy expanding your influence I guess it helps to have friends.”
“No doubt,” agreed Walter as he waved Michael to silence. “But, the Captain is correct. Where did Merkot acquire all these guards?”
“As near as Captain Alec can guess, sir, he’s reassigned all those puffed-up pets he’s been pumping out of the academy to the First Run troop. The Boulevard troop has been reduced in size and left in charge of some minor crossings. Most of it’s officers have been retired.”
“That’s outrageous!” Shouted Michael. Terrin nodded in furious agreement.
“Michael, We’re all in agreement with you. But right now anger isn’t going to get us very far.”
Michael nodded and came to attention. “Sorry, Senator. I will keep my opinions to myself at present.”
“No need to get all formal, Michael.”
“It helps, sir.”
Walter sighed, but nodded. Turning back to the riverside guard, he continued, “So that’s the road behind us. What news from the road ahead?”
“Well, that’s the interesting thing, sir. The road ahead is clear.”
“Merkot’s not moved to block it at all?”
“No sir. The Second Run Troop is pretty chummy with us in Riverside, and they’ve told our scouts they haven’t gotten any orders to be on the lookout.”
“Merkot hasn’t stocked the troop with his trainees?”
The guard grinned once again. “He tried, sir. But as I said, they’re chummy with us. Weasel’s pets didn’t last long, some of them even left the guards altogether.”
“Hmmm.” Muttered Walter as he stroked his chin. “We’ll have to assume most of those he tried to embed there are now officially assigned to the First Run Troop. But the road ahead is still clear?”
“All the way up to The Ravine, sir. And those guards have told Weasel where to go. If you get my meaning, sir.”
Walter nodded and grinned. “I do, indeed, patroller. Is there anything else?”
“That’s it, sir. Captain Alec did want me to wish you successful journeys, though.”
“Pass on to him my compliments, patroller. Will you be remaining here?”
He nodded. “Yes, sir. Our scouts are coming back in and we’ll keep a group here to keep an eye on things.”
“Smart move, that,” agreed Walter. “Now, if I may ask a favor?”
“The young lad here isn’t quite as used to walking in the wet as the rest of our party. Is there a place he could change into some dry clothes?”
“Certainly, sir,” said the guard. He motioned to Jeremy, “This way.”
“Just a moment,” said Jeremy as he turned to retrieve his pack. After he unhooked it from it’s spot among their baggage he followed the guard into the nearby building. The guard pointed him to a small room in which Jeremy could change out of his wet clothes. As he stripped off his soaked outfit, some warmth returned to his body, and as he felt the touch of dry clothes against his skin he found himself relaxing. He exited the room and nodded thanks to the guard, who nodded back.
“You travel in pretty important company, kid,” he said as they approached the door.
“I know, I’m really fortunate.”
“Folks like that don’t much travel with people without a reason. But you’ve got a Senator, two healers, and a couple of guards to pal around with. Why is that?”
“Just lucky, I guess.”
“And they all seem to keep an eye out for you. You’re the kid, but I’ve seen how that captain hovers near you. It’s almost like they were tagging along with you.”
“Well, I don’t know about what Michael’s doing. But I know for a fact I’m the one along for the ride.”
The guard shrugged as they returned to earshot of the group, clearly unconvinced by Jeremy’s assurances. As they approached Walter offered his hand. “Well, good luck, son.”
The guard saluted once more, but then reached out with his own hand and clasped Walter’s. “Thank you, to you as well sir.”
With that the guard nodded to the group and returned to the warmth of his shelter. Walter waved everyone forward. Even Terrin, who looked as through he was preparing to hang back behind the group once more.
“Terrin, I don’t think you need to worry about what’s behind us at this point. Stay up with the group now.”
“As you wish, Walter.”
The group continued on, the only sound being the occasional splash of a puddle as one of their animals made their way down the road. After about an hour Jeremy’s teeth began to chatter once more, and he took his second swallow of Ama’s restorative. Once more warmth spread throughout his body.
“You all right, lad?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, Walter, thanks. Just following healer’s orders.”
“You’re a smart one, lad, that’s for certain.”
“What is it lad?”
“What do you think we’ll find when we get to The Ravine?”
Walter scratched his chin for a bit before responding. “I don’t really know, lad. Everything that’s happening on First Run and out toward Shelter is alarming. But there’s also signs Merkot’s not having all his own way.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think maybe Merkot tried to bite off more than he could chew because he wanted to catch us that badly. If we’re lucky, that’ll give us a window.”
Jeremy nodded, but lapsed back into silence. As they walked the road began to travel an incline up a low hill. To their right, as dawn began to break the first rays of the sun were beginning to race down the distant mountains into the valleys below. When the party crested the hill Jeremy noticed a white gleam in the distance, as if something were catching the feeble rays of the sun and reflecting it back out toward the darkness.
Walter pointed to the glow in the distance and placed his arms around the youth. “Welcome to The Ravine, Jeremy. It certainly took us long enough to get here.”