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
One of the guards accompanying Michael down the path, a sergeant named Meels, cocked an eyebrow. “Something the matter, Captain?”
Michael smiled wearily. “No, Sergeant. Nothing is wrong. It’s simply been a stressful time. I sometimes wonder how I, of all people, ended up with this group.”
“It’s quite an honor to be attached to a sitting Senator, Captain, and to wear the uniform of a Presidential Guard.”
“That is is,” Michael nodded. “But I was little more than the right guard at the right time. Had I not been present when Walter passed through my post I’d likely have headed home to my wife and finished my career in peace.”
Meels grinned, “So those rumors are true. You really stepped in to allow Walter to return to the Inner Valleys?”
“I wasn’t aware that story had travelled beyond our little group.”
Meels laughed. “Perhaps the story has not travelled widely, but among certain groups your actions have become a sign of hope.”
“Hope for what?”
“For a future where the protections under our laws will no longer suffer abuse! Among many guards, Captain, your name is celebrated. And among those of us here in Woodhall, you are hailed as one who helped bring us our greatest ally in the Senate.”
“Sergeant Meels, I thank you for your words, but I’m simply a guard like you.”
“You are a guard who stood up to injustice, and insisted our laws protect everyone. And was also honored by the president herself! Don’t sell yourself short, Captain.”
Michael shook his head in disbelief. “I am honored by your words, Sergeant, and I won’t do them disservice by denying their merit. I will say I have never sought to be considered great.”
“Perhaps that’s why people are willing to consider you as such.”
Michael shrugged, but did not respond. He continued to lead the party’s pack animals down the switchback path in reflective silence. Eventually reaching the bottom and crossing the low bridge at the path’s base.
As he approached the other side, Michael noticed a familiar figure leaning against the bridge’s railing. Handing the reins to another the guards accompanying him down the path, Michael walked ahead and approached his friend.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Terrin. I’d have thought you would be near Jeremy.”
Terrin grinned. “Walter insisted I come help you with the animals. I believe his exact words were, ‘If we aren’t safe here, there’s nothing you can do about it. So instead of looking pretty in your uniform, why don’t you go make yourself useful?’”
“He really said, ‘pretty?’”
“Walter does tend to have a unique way with words.”
“That he does,” Michael chuckled. He stretched out his right hand to indicate his companion. “Terrin, let me introduce Sergeant Meels, Woodhall troop.”
Terrin offed his hand to Meels, only to be shocked when the Woodhall guard instead saluted.
Terrin returned the salute rather awkwardly, a faint hint of a smile on his lips. “Sergeant, I’m… honored by your salute, but I’ve been an officer for only a few months. I’m still not comfortable being formally recognized for my rank.”
Meels lowered his hand and offered it to Terrin. “That might be. But the story of Patroller Terrin, who risked his career in order to defend The Valleys against Merkot’s dogs, is well known to us.”
Michael grinned as he noticed Terrin had begun to blush. “He stood up to a whole squad, in fact,” the captain added with a smile.
Terrin glared incredulously at his friend. “It was hardly like that, Michael. I seem to remember falling unconscious myself at one point during the encounter.”
“Well, that would be a fine story to hear,” said Meels as he clapped his hands in excitement. “Brave Terrin treacherously knocked unconscious by his own companions as he stood between them and injustice.”
Terrin’s face became an even deeper shade of red. “It really wasn’t like that, at all.”
Meels’ grin didn’t fade. In fact, it grew even more wide as he waved his silent men by as they led the party’s animals to some nearby stables. “Even so, the story is certainly a tale worth hearing. After we settle your animals, come and share a pint of ale or two, and tell us of your exploits as guards in the Inner Valleys.”
“Meels,” Michael responded. “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll join you for a pint or two. But tonight I’m afraid we need to get our animals settled and report in to the Senator.”
“I’ve also been charged to look over the supplies Senator Fellow has prepared for our trek to the retreats. I’m told they are being stored near the stables, is that correct?”
“It is indeed, let’s see your animals boarded for the night and I’ll lead you to the supplies myself!”
“That sounds fine, Sergeant,” replied Michael. “Lead the way.”
The animals were soon boarded in well-kept stables. After seeing they were provisioned, and the belongings they carried were secured under lock and key, Meels led the two guards to a dark warehouse a few hundred yards from the stables. Surrounded tall birch trees, the warehouse almost seemed to glow in the light of the setting Sun. As the three men approached the warehouse, Terrin seemed to notice something odd about his surroundings.
“It’s going to be dark soon, why am I not seeing any evertorches glowing?”
“Ahh. I can see how that might unsettle a man from the Inner Valleys. We use evertorches in the main settlement, and of course inside our warehouses and the Great House up the hill. But here in the Birch Grove we place no torches to shine upon our beautiful trees.”
“I’ve never heard of this practice,” Michael reflected. “Why would you wish to keep the light of the evertorches from shining on these trees?”
“Ah,” Meels grinned. “If you’re willing to be here after dark, which shouldn’t be long now, you can see for yourself. It’s near a full moon tonight, it really is the best time to take in the grove.”
“That sounds… fascinating,” Terrin replied. “But let’s look at our supply situation before the Sun sets entirely.”
“Certainly, right this way.”
The warehouse to which Meels led them was guarded by two men, both of whom came to attention at their Sergeant’s approach. They removed the lock from the door and stepped aside to let the trio pass through.
While the setting Sun had caused the shadows of the outside world to lengthen, inside the warehouse was brightly lit with the honey-glow of countless evertorches. Meels led Michael and Terrin through several rows of different supplies before stopping and spreading his arms to indicate their arrival.
“Here we are. We’re still waiting for some bolts of cloth to arrive from Bayview, but everything else is hear as ordered. You’ll be able to open up the retreats and supply the buildings for the Summer tenants with no problems whatsoever.”
Terrin pulled a list from his pocket and began to check off items as he found them in the supply pile. Michael took the opportunity to find a nearby chair and read his weary feet. Meels soon joined him and leaned on a nearby pole as the older guard leaned back with a grunt of relief.
“Would you mind answering a question, Captain?”
“Even with your supplies, which are well chosen, it still seems rather early to be heading out to the Retreats.”
Michael sat upright in his chair and issued a cold stare in the younger guard’s direction.
“That was a statement, not a question, Sergeant.”
Meels cleared his throat nervously, but continued his training of thought. “My apologies, Captain. I was just wondering, where is the Senator really going?”
Michael’s stare froze more deeply, causing the sergeant to swallow uncomfortably. “We are going to the Retreats, sergeant. Just as we said.”
“As you say, sir. As you say. But may I offer one piece of advice?”
“What is that, Sergeant?”
“If you were to do any camping, that clothe you ordered works better when you soak it in three coats of oil. I know most people use two, but the weave isn’t very light.”
“If I’m ever planning any camping, I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”
“OK. Everything’s here,” called Terrin. “Let’s report to Walter.”
By the time the trio returned outside the Sun had set and shadows engulfed the Birch Grove. Michael expected the grove to be nearly empty with the approach of night, and was shocked to find it more full than before the Sun had set. Revelers strolled under the nearly bare branches in the chilly early Spring air. There was no panic or rush to the warm embrace of a nearby evertorch. Indeed, everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening.
“How is everyone so calm? There isn’t an evertorch in this entire grove!” remarked Terrin.
Almost as the guard spoke, however, the Moon’s light began to fall upon the ancient birch trees. As the pale glow washed over the grove, the silver bark which adorned the majestic trees began to glow. The change began slowly, but soon the entire grove was filled with a brilliant white light. Michael and Terrin, stood in awe, transfixed by the spectacle before them.
Meels crossed his arms in satisfaction and smiled. “My friends, there’s more than one kind of light in the world.”