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
The group walked along the wide road toward Woodhall in silence. The temperature was relatively pleasant, especially given the time of year and the altitude at which they walked, but the absence of trees made the friends feel rather exposed. Whenever they did speak, their voices fled up into the sky on the wind, and the lack of an echo made Jeremy feel very small indeed.
While flat, and nearly devoid of distinctive features, there was much on the plateau which made the absence of people seem extremely odd. The soil near the road appeared to be dark and loose, and even if proved too rocky for farming the tall grass should have been excellent for grazing livestock. Small streams also crisis-crossed the landscape, providing fresh water which arrived from higher altitudes. Given the suitability of the land for settlement, Jeremey couldn’t understand why this particular stretch was so devoid of human life.
“Hm?” mumbled Walter, shocked by the sudden intrusion of a human voice into the oppressive silence. Turning his gaze toward Jeremy, he smiled, “Yes, lad?”
“I know this isn’t the best looking land, but it certainly seems as though it would be productive if put to use. Why aren’t there any farms or herds down this way?”
“That’s a good question, Lad. The way the folks in Woodhall put it, when they first came South through the mountain they stepped out on this plateau and saw no trees. Even though,” Walter paused to point to a higher ridge off to the West. “We are obviously below the tree line. It unsettled them.”
“A lack of trees unsettled them?”
“Lad, you’ve heard how quiet we’ve been walking this road. When you whispered my name it felt as though the very air protested the sound and my heart skipped a beat. Can’t you feel it?”
Jeremy swallowed, and nodded. “Yes, I can. It doesn’t feel hostile, but it’s not welcoming either. I feel… small.”
“That’s the way most feel as they travel this direction. Truth be told, most of the Woodhall folks don’t come this way, either. It’s easier to connect over to the River Road and take The Boulevard toward The Ravine. They keep this open as a matter of pride.”
“Pride of what?”
“That they dared to come out here in the first place. The Senate thought the people who wanted to settle South of Mount Gateway were deluded. They only allowed the group to leave because they wouldn’t stop causing issues in the Inner Settlements, and because they thought they’d most likely be wiped out in the first year. Or so the story goes, anyway.”
“You don’t know?”
“Tollen might,” said Walter as he motioned back to the Seeker. “He’s been in archives most people have never seen.”
“But the people of Woodhall believe the story?”
“Absolutely they do! They tell how they were unnerved by the silence here, but undaunted they marched forward until they came to the place that would become Woodhall. They lived on their own for many years, building up a thriving settlement, before finally sending messengers back to The Ravine with news of their success.”
Jeremy smiled. “I bet the Senate had a difficult time processing that revelation.”
“You’d better believe it! That much everyone knows. After Woodhall Petitioned to become part of The Valleys, and for representation in the Senate, other dissatisfied folk began pouring out of the Inner Valleys. Most went East, past Water Gap, but some turned up the path that would become the River Road, and settled Bay View. That became the major trade route through the outer settlements.”
“And it’s why Woodhall is so important.”
“You got it, lad. For many folks, mostly folks without power themselves, Woodhall is a symbol of hope.”
“But people have been coming this way for years. You’d think they’d have found a way to get over the uneasy feelings it generates.”
“I don’t know, lad,” replied Walter with a shake of his head. “I don’t mind saying, I can’t wait until we get off this rock. I feel like someone is watching everything I do.”
“Hmm, I know what you mean.” He stopped in road, side-stepping Talum as he passed by. When the healer noticed Jeremy wasn’t preparing to fall back in with the party he also stopped, a quizzical look on his face.
“Sheilak, are you there?” Jeremy uttered in his mind.
“Yes,” the guardian replied curtly. There weren’t many evertorches along the road and without them she was having a difficulty communicating in the bright sunlight.
“We all feel uneasy. I guess it could be natural, given how exposed we are, but it doesn’t feel natural. Do you know anything about this road?”
“Keeping watch,” Sheilak managed to say.
“Someone’s keeping watch? Are the guardians watching this place?”
“See,” was all his companion managed to say.
“See,” she reiterated. With this, his bonding crystal became ice cold, and he realized he wouldn’t get much more out of the Guardian at present.
Jeremy then did something he’d not dared in many weeks. He turned fully toward the mountain and opened his perception to see what colors might wash over him. Glowing in the sky behind Mount Gateway was the purple hue which all but blinded his sight in the Inner Valleys. Despite the political defeat of Merkot, that haze had not departed, though Ama was certain it would. The world directly around him, however, was covered in a light blue hue. This color, he’d learned during his training sessions with Ama, was associated with a concerned watchfulness. The hue flowed from the Plateau up the side of Mount Gateway, much like a rolling surf, almost to it’s peak. There, however, the color shifted again. The highest point of Mount Gateway was clothed in a deep earthy brown – the color of loyalty. Twinkling faintly through the brown was the glint of a crystalline reflection.
“There’s a window up there,” pointed Jeremy.
“What?” Michael came over to Jeremy, his gaze following the youth’s finger back toward the mountain. Squinting, he shook his head. “I don’t see anything, Jeremy, sorry.”
“It’s there, though. I saw it.”
“But, lad, there aren’t any tunnels high up on the South side of the mountain.”
“There aren’t supposed to be, you mean.” Turning to Ama Jeremy pointed toward the mountain once more, “Ama, what do you see up near the peak?”
“Jeremy, my senses aren’t as acute as yours. I doubt I could see that far.”
Frustrated, Jeremy sighed. “Fine. What about the plateau itself. What do you see here?”
Ama glanced around for a moment her eyes going temporarily out of focus. Suddenly, she cocked her head in contemplation and turned toward the youth. “I see light blue. This plateau is being watched.”
“Watched,” said Walter as he stepped toward Ama. “By who, Meddle?”
“Well folks, perhaps we should ask the guy who knew about the secret door in that tunnel we just passed through,” Tollen barked. “Seems like thatmight be a good place to start.”
All eyes turned toward Tollen, whose face had flushed white. For the second time that day the face of the absent-minded healer had transformed into a mask of intense focus.
“You aren’t supposed to be able to see that.”
“See, what Healer Talum?” inquired Terrin.
Talum sighed several times, appearing to have a wrestling match in his own head, before he blurted out, “Our observation post.”
“You’re what?” Walter snapped.
“Our observation post. Um healers have always looked to the South. We knew danger could come from there. It’s why we keep the plateau clear of trees. This was the natural path into The Valleys, we wanted to be able to see clearly anyone who came this way.”
“Well, well,” Tollen piped. “Walter you weren’t kidding about secrets.”
“Just… let it go Tollen. There’s nothing nefarious about keeping watch, but at least now I know why I feel jumpy. Let’s just get to Woodhall.”
“But Walter,” Michael protested. “The President…”
“Should what, Michael? Be told the Um healers have got a secret clubhouse in Mount Gateway? I’m pretty sure she’d shrug that off. Besides, she’s got her own secret clubhouse. Remember?”
“This is still something that should be known, Walter,” Tollen protested. “The Um healers aren’t the ones charged with the protection of The Valleys. That’s the guard’s job.”
“Fine. Tollen, you go ahead and turn back, then. I doubt anyone will really care, and I’d be shocked if Satal was even the slightest bit surprised. The rest of us are going on.” Walter started down the road once more, muttering quietly under his breath. When no one moved to follow him he turned around again.
“Walter,” Ama soothed. “You seem to be more upset by this then you’re allowing yourself to recognize.”
“Oh no, Meddle, I know exactly how upset I am. It’s all these secrets. We’ve been keeping them from each other for so long we don’t even remember most of our own history! A little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit hidden in a cave somewhere else. But no one gets the full picture, no one is allowed to piece the puzzle together. Well I’ve had it. I want answers, and as far as I know, they’re all South. And that’s where I’m going, with Jeremy.”
Ama smiled nervously. “OK, Old Fox, we’re with you. I think each of us would like some answers as well.”
“Great,” Walter chirped as he spread out his arms. Sweeping them back toward the path he reiterated, “Now, can we go?”