Today’s blog is the continuation of, Welcome to the Valleys. If you would like to catch up with the tale, the first section can be found at this link
After climbing up into the hills South of The Ravine for much of the day, the path crested a ridge and turned East. There was a small junction settlement at the turn, and the party decided to stop for lunch at it’s small restaurant. From Jeremy’s seat he could look down the Eastern road, and noticed the incline was getting steeper.
Sensing Jeremy’s apprehension, Walter moved to reassure him. “That’s the Mountain Road, lad, it’s steep at the beginning, but it levels out after a few miles. Further on there’s switchbacks to make the path easier on travelers.”
Jeremy nodded in response, but continued to eye the road as he ate his meal. Once back under way, however, he came to realize Walter’s description had been accurate. After a steep incline for a few miles, the path leveled out and ran relatively flat after that. Other than the switchbacks, which navigated up the sharper inclines as the mountains began to dominate the landscape, the path remained relatively easy to walk.
The group arrived in Mountain Hold as twilight began to descend. Jeremy’s first glimpse of the settlement didn’t impress him very much, and as they grew closer his opinion didn’t grow more positive. Mountain Hold was little more than a small cluster of buildings, hugging the base of Mount Gateway. The Mountain Road didn’t even pass through the settlement. Travelers had to take a short Southward path, which ran about a half mile down a sharp incline from the main road, in order to actually enter the village. The deepening shadows and the lack of comfortable prospects in the dingy town didn’t give Jeremey much hope for a pleasant night.
There was a low wall around the settlement, but the gates were opened, and no guard approached them as they entered the settlement.
This shocked Jeremy, as he’d encountered guards at nearly every settlement through which he’d travelled in The Valleys. Even the junctions had outposts of uniformed keepers of the peace directing traffic and inspecting trade-goods for contraband.
“Why aren’t there any guards?” Jeremey asked Michael as Walter and Tollen led their animals to the local stables.
Michael smiled. “Well, the people of Mountain Hold are a bit… different. They have always maintained the real threat to The Valleys is there,” he said, pointing South toward the mountain. “And to remind others the danger to their well being is not other humans, they leave their North-facing walls unguarded.”
“Uh, ok. But if that’s the case, why did they allow a tunnel to be carved through the mountain? If there’s danger to the South, why make a path for it.”
“That is a good question, Jeremy. No one is really sure. I’ve never been here before, but I’m told the road to Woodhall is rather remarkable.”
Michael grinned, “I think you’ll have to wait to see for yourself, son.”
Terrin tapped Michael on the shoulder. “Sir, Walter is calling us over,” he said, pointing toward a gesturing figure a block or so from the fountain at which they’d stopped.
Michael roused the group, which evoked some grumbling from Talum, and led them all over to the old Senator.
“About time, I’ve been waving for an eternity! Let’s go eat.”
With that, Walter led the group to what appeared to be a small shack built against the side of the mountain. At first, Jeremy wondered how their group would all be able to eat in such a small setting, but his concerns were quickly transformed into curiosity. The shack was actually the entry way to a series of lifts which looked much like those found in The Ravine.
Walter escorted them into a car, and they quickly ascended up the mountain. When the doors opened once more, the group poured out into a beautiful restaurant, framed by an enormous window which offered a spectacular view of the world below. Down in the settlement the Sun had long-since vanished from site. At the height at which they now stood, however, it remained visible on the horizon.
“Wow,” was all Jeremy could utter.
“You didn’t think those shacks were the town?” said Tollen as he took a rough hold of Jeremy’s shoulder. “Those are for the animals and their caretakers. The real town is up here, carved in the mountain.”
With that, Tollen stepped away from Jeremy and headed to the table where Walter was already seated. The friends enjoyed a comfortable meal as the Sun finally completed it’s descent on the Western Horizon.
After the meal they were lead through several windowed passages, illuminated both by the evertorches embedded in the mountain and the moonlight streaming in from a cloudless sky. The rooms which Walter had reserved for the party were comfortably decorated and spacious, but by that point Jeremy was so tired from the day he barely acknowledged the space. He quickly found his bed and fell into a blissful sleep.
The next morning the party rose early and made their way to the lifts. As the car descended to the stables below Jeremy asked, “Why do we have to go all the way back down, if we’re already in the mountain? Wouldn’t it be better to have several tunnels through it at different levels.”
“The people of the Hold will only carve out the Northern face of the mountain, Jeremy,” replied Ama. “They have no structures on the Southern face and won’t build through the mountain. In fact, it’s only with great reluctance they allow the existing tunnel to remain open.”
The doors to the car opened and Walter led the group outside, where their animals were already lined up and ready for travel. The old Senator paid the stable hands their care fees, with a great deal of complaint, and soon the party was moving outside the low walls and making their way along a well-packed dirt path along the settlement’s Eastern edge. Soon they were ascending a short set of stairs, which the animals ascended with with some difficulty, and came at last to the opening of the Tunnel.
“State your names and business,” said a bored-looking guard as he emerged from a dingy booth at the top of the stairs.
“Senator Walter, Old Fox, and party. We are on our way to Woodhall on Senate business.”
The guard suddenly emerged from his bored indifference. “Senator! I’d been told you were passing through today, but you weren’t expected until later. My apologies, sir!”
“No need to apologize. We wanted to get an early start so we could reach Woodhall this afternoon. How’s the road?”
The guard cocked his head in thought as he responded. “There hasn’t been much traffic lately, to be honest. Woodhall traders are making their way to Bayside directly so they can reach the River Road. We just get a few tourists making their way to The Ravine nowadays.”
“And the road’s clear?”
The guard nodded. “Oh yah. It’s an easy journey and the folks from Woodhall keep the road well-maintained. You shouldn’t have any problems.”
“Good. Now, if you don’t mind, we’d like to get underway.”
“Of course. One moment.”
With that the guard returned to his dingy post and pulled on a lever. A moment later the doors to the tunnel began to open, howling a groan of protest as they did so.
Jeremy peered into the tunnel beyond the threshold and was thoroughly unimpressed. While the tunnel through Shelter had been handsomely carved and well-lit, the tunnel through Mount Gateway looked stubbornly unfinished. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel were rough-hewn, and the evertorches which lined it’s walls were oddly placed. Much to his relief, however, he noticed he could see the exit off in the distance.
“Safe journeys, Senator!” shouted the guard as the party passed.
Soon they were all through the entrance and making their way down the tunnel’s uneven path. As they went, the door behind them clanged shut with a jolt.
“Say goodbye to the Inner Valleys, folks. I don’t think we’ll be back for a while,” Walter said as they continued forward to the other side.
About halfway through the passage Jeremy turned his eyes to the left and noticed something which took him by surprise.
“Hold on,” he said, which brought the party to a stop. He moved toward the left wall of the tunnel and ran his fingers along a seemingly natural rock face. Suddenly, he shifted his weight toward the wall and, accompanied a hiss of rushing air, a hidden doorway was opened – revealing a set of stairs climbing up the mountain’s interior.
“Ama, I though you said there weren’t any other tunnels through the mountain.”
Ama’s face wore a mask of shock. “There aren’t, Jeremy. At least, that’s what I’ve always been told.” She turned to Walter, who seemed equally perplexed.
“Don’t look at me, Meddle. There’s not supposed to be anything along this tunnel. How did you find the door, lad?”
“I don’t know. I was looking at the wall and saw the outline somehow.” A sudden urge over took him and he leaned through the open portal, glancing up a well-lit and nicely carved staircase. “I wonder what’s up there?” Jeremy said as he moved to put is foot on the first step.
“Jeremy, I’m sorry, but I can’t permit you to go up there. It’s not for you.” Talum’s voice called from behind.
The party wheeled, expecting to find the normally absent-minded healer. Instead, they were were met with an expression of determination they’d not before seen on their companion.
“Come again, Healer?” Tollen spoke first. “Did you know this was here?”
Talum nodded slowly. “It’s a place for Um healers. I can’t say any more. Jeremy shouldn’t even have been able to find the door, much less open it.”
Walter grunted. “Probably one of his Prismatic tricks. I have to say, the number of secrets we seem to be keeping from each other is getting a bit unnerving. What are you Um healers hiding up there?”
“Walter, I’m sorry. I can’t say.” Talum’s face was contorted with anguish, the open door was clearly grating on his conscious.
“All right. All right. Jeremy close the door.”
“No ‘buts,’ this is not what we’re doing today, and Talum here looks like he’s about to melt down. Just… pull the door shut.”
With that Jeremy reached out and pulled on a handle, which had been expertly hidden in the rock. As the door hissed shut, Talum visibly relaxed.
“Well discuss this another time,” was all Walter said on the subject.
The party continued to move through the tunnel and emerged into the light on the other side. As they exited the passage the found themselves at the bottom of a long ramp which lead into the lands beyond the mountain.
Jeremy looked around. “There’s no guard here?”
“No,” Terrin said. “No one from Mountain Hold would spend any time guarding this side of the mountain, and the Woodhall people don’t want to waste resources maintaining a post.”
“So how do people let the guard on the other side they need to door open.”
“There’s a call box toward the other end of the tunnel, they let the guard know when they want through.”
“What is is Jeremy?” Ama chimed in.
“Well, it’s just so different from every other place I’ve seen in The Valleys.”
“Lad, you’re South of Mount Gateway now, it’s a different world.”
With that Walter led the group up the ramp, which Jeremy noticed was wide and expertly paved. As they crested the ramp the group found themselves standing on a treeless plateau, decorated with tall grass swaying in a cool breeze. The grass was still slightly brown, as Spring had not yet fully taken hold, but even at this height Jeremy noticed the weather was significantly warmer than it had been on the other side of the mountain.
As he looked out along the road the youth was reminded of the boulevard. Like the ramp, it was wide and well-paved. The differences, however, were noticeable. There were no plantations or orchards lining the road, and as he looked to the distance there didn’t seem to be a single person traveling upon it. Empty, it reached out into unknown lands.
The journey South had begun.