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
“Really, Walter, I think you have more than enough to stock the Retreats for the first months of Summer. Why burden yourself any more?” Jeremy once overheard Senator Fellow remark to his friend.
“I just like to make sure. No one’s been out there all Winter and who knows the state of the place. Folks may have to come after us to do repair work, and I want them to find a well-stocked pantry when they arrive,” Walter replied.
Fellow shrugged in response, and shifted the conversation to a political strategy letter which had arrived from President Satal that morning. Jeremy, tired of being cooped up, had gone outside to see if he could find any of his friends. As he walked the grounds of the great house he heard a voice cry from above.
The young man looked up, wondering where the voice had been coming from, and discovered Terrin standing on the observation deck which adorned the roof of the Great House. Smiling, Jeremy quickly made his way to the stairs and joined his friend on the deck. From this vantage point the fields South of the settlement could be observed in their fullness. Jeremy stood in silence next to his friend for some time, admiring the view, before a voice spoke in his head.
“It is time. We must leave.”
“Why must we leave now, Sheilak?”
“I cannot see, danger.”
“Danger? On the road, or right here?” Jeremy responded in his thoughts. But, exhausted by speaking in the bright sunlight, the Guardian wouldn’t say any more. In fact, Jeremy thought he felt her move out from his bonding crystal and travel down toward the main settlement.
Terrin noticed Jeremy’s cocked head, a sure indicator he was having a conversation with the Guardian, and asked, “Is something wrong, Jeremy?”
“Sheilak just said it was time for us to go,” Jeremy replied. Pausing for a moment he then added, “She mentioned she couldn’t see, and said ‘danger.’”
Terrin’s face curled into a thoughtful frown. “Hmm, we’d better tell Walter. Sheilak is not one to give false warnings.”
“If you say so,” Jeremy shrugged. He was frustrated by the warning and was harboring a bit of resentment towards the Guardian for her lengthy absences as of late.
Once warned, however, Walter took Sheilak’s warning very seriously. That evening at supper he gathered the party together and informed them they were to be ready to leave at sunrise the following day.
“Senator Fellow has a send-off banquet planned for tomorrow night,” Ama replied. “It will look odd if we leave early.”
“Can’t be helped,” Walter countered. “Sheilak sees things we don’t. And, truth be told, I’m getting a bit antsy as well.”
After Walter dismissed the group, everyone retreated to their rooms in order to pack their belongings for the journey. Michael and Terrin then travelled to the stables to make certain their animals were ready to depart at Sunrise. With that, the group headed to bed and a fitful rest.
Jeremy was wakened by Michael shortly before sunrise. As he rubbed his eyes awake and acknowledged his friend’s urging to get dressed, the youth looked out the window of his room. Stars remained visible in the sky, but a red glow was beginning to creep up the Eastern horizon. The time for departure had, indeed, arrived.
After dressing himself in comfortable travel clothes, Jeremy hoisted his pack on his shoulder and made his way down to the main hall. There he found Senator Fellow pleading with Walter.
“Walter, I don’t understand. Why must you leave today? We had a departure banquet prepared for tonight and the leading citizens of Woodhall wanted to send you off in style! What will one more day cost you?”
“I’m sorry, Fellow, but I received a message which makes me want to finish my business at the Retreats quickly and get back to work,” Walter replied.
“Message?” Fellow blurted out. “What message? You and I went over the President’s report together, Walter. There was nothing in it which urged haste.”
“It was an… alternate… mode of communication, Fellow. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can say.”
Senator Fellow stared at his friend for several beats as he calculated his next words. Jeremy seemed to notice the Senator from Woodhall organize, and then reject, several versions of what he wanted to say. Finally, he abandoned any attempt at political pretense and simply asked, “Walter, tell me. Are we in danger?”
Walter sighed. “Fellow, I wish I knew. But what I can tell you is it might not be a bad idea to add some more guards to your watches. It never hurts to be ready.”
Fellow stiffened slightly, but nodded. “It will be done. I’ll speak to the council this morning.” Placing his left hand on Walter’s right shoulder, he then added, “Safe journeys Walter, and return to us quickly this time. You are needed.”
The senator for from Woodhall then winked at his friend, but before Walter could respond he turned and marched out of the hall toward his office. Unable to speak to Fellow without shouting, he instead shot Jeremy a troubled glance and grumbled.
“He knows, doesn’t he?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes. Michael seemed to get that impression from some of the Woodhall guards as well.”
Walter grunted. “He to you that, did he?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“Yes, but I told him to keep it to himself.” Heaving a sigh of frustration, Walter turned to exit the Great House with Jeremy in tow. After he was clear of Great House grounds Walter grumbled quietly, “Woodhall. What a mix. Here you have politicians and Seekers working together, all digging away at the world. Between the two of them it’s almost impossible to keep a secret in this place.”
“Are you worried?”
“Of them?” replied Walter as he threw a thumb over his shoulder. “No. The Seekers don’t mean any harm, and the Woodhall politicians are almost all Seekers. What I’m worried about is if the Seekers figured this out, other people could to.”
“I was wondering why you took Sheilak’s warning so seriously.”
“Well, now you know. So let’s heed the warning and get out of here.”
The pair quickly made their way down the path toward the stables, where they met up with Terrin, Michael, and Talum. Jeremy accepted the reins for two laden pack horses, but paused as the others began to depart.
“Wait. Where’s Ama and Tollen?”
“It’s alright, Jeremy,” Terrin replied. “They’re meeting us on the other side of the settlement. Walter sent them ahead to pick up some breakfast for us.”
Despite the tension Jeremy knew his friend was feeling, Walter managed to smile. “You didn’t think I’d let us get out of down without something to eat, did you lad?”
“I should hope not,” Talum quietly barked under his breath. Over the months he’d known the absent-minded healer, Jeremy had noticed he could be rather cranky when hungry.
Walter ignored Talum’s grumble and led their group back toward the path which descended down to the main settlement. Concerned for his safety, Walter had forbid his charge from visiting the town during their visit, so the youth was quite excited to see what Woodhall had to offer.
As they passed through town along the main road, Jeremy couldn’t help but be impressed. Woodhall didn’t have the massive weight of presence which was exuded by The Ravine, or the busy pace of Riverside. It was also missing the any sort of protective wall, such as he’d seen in Water Gap. In fact, Woodhall was unlike anything he’d seen through all his travels in The Valleys. The buildings were a wonderful blend of stone and wood and, with the the exception of some warehouses Jeremy could spot toward the river, none were more than three stories tall. The streets were paved with cobblestones and were spotlessly clean. Sidewalks allowed for those not accompanied by animals or carts to travel without hindering traffic.
The town wasn’t large, as far as Jeremy could tell it was no more than a quarter of the size of Water Gap, but it was organized. He spotted several streets which ran parallel to the main road, and these were intersected perpendicularly by many smaller avenues. Shops lined the main road, but residences of various size dotted the side streets.
“It’s an impressive place. Isn’t it, Lad?”
Jeremy nodded to Walter. “It is, and they don’t have a wall.”
“Yes, that’s very unusual for an outer settlement. Even the poorest of plantations out past Water Gap have a stockade, and Plantation actually has a massive construction which surrounds their fields. It’s miles and miles long.”
“So why doesn’t Woodhall have any protection?”
Walter shrugged. “No one really knows. All they say when asked is, ‘A wall to keep out what?’ You’d think, after being cut off from The Valleys for as long as they’d been, they’d be a bit more cautious. But the folks here… they just don’t seem to be bothered by the things other folks are.”
“That’s one way to put it.” Before Jeremy had a chance to continue the conversation, his friend pointed down the road — where two people stood waiting in the dim light of early morning.
“Good morning, Meddle.” Walter called quietly as they approached. While the farmers had risen early, and could now be spotted off in the distance working their fields as the Sun came up, the majority of the town had yet to stir. Even the clopping of their horses hooves sounded like a thunderous roar in the morning silence.
“What? No greeting for me, Old Fox?” Tollen poked.
“Good morning to you too, Tollen. I see you’ve enjoyed breakfast,” said Walter as he pointed to the crumbs adorning the Seeker’s shirt.
Tollen shrugged and wiped off the crumbs. “Why wait? This way I can keep a watch on the road while you all stuff your faces.”
Walter said nothing, but shook his head in mock frustration. Ama soon distributed breakfast sandwiches to the party, and offered a sealed container of liquid to each person.
As Jeremy bit into a fresh egg and cheese sandwich, Terrin unscrewed his container and breathed in deeply. “Coffee! Ama, you’re a marvel!”
The healer smiled, “I thought you might want a nice pick-me-up this early in the morning.”
Terrin grinned in response and deftly sipped hot liquid. Once the party was settled with their food and drink, they continued down the road.
The main path veered South toward the fields shortly after exiting town. An unpaved dirt road, however, continued East out into the forest.
“That’s our path, let’s get moving,” Was all the direction Walter gave.
It took nearly six hours to traverse the path and reach Woodhall’s retreats. The road, unkept during the Winter months, was uneven and difficult to travel. Several times the party had to lead their horses around trees which had fallen and blocked the road. Each time Michael spotted an obstacle, he stopped the party and went out with Terrin to scout ahead. While the companions passed each one without incident, Jeremy became more and more tense with each encounter. It wasn’t only the caution of his friends which was getting to him, the forest itself seemed to be fighting back the dawn — the shadows faded great reluctance, yielding only a dim light in the morning Sun. the silence of the forest was equally disconcerting, especially after spending so much time in the noisy confines of The Ravine. It came as a great relief to Jeremy when he spotted a clearing ahead and heard Walter say, “We’ve arrived.”
The Retreats turned out to be a series of small buildings, built within a clearing which had apparently been carved out of the forest. As Jeremy entered the field of grass, sighing in relief as he felt the comfortable Spring Sun shining on his face, he noticed something odd. As he looked to the East, it appeared as if the world simply ended. Ahead of him, looking beyond the buildings of the Retreats, all he could see was blue sky. In the distance he could just make out the sound of crashing water.
“That’s the ocean,” he said with certainty.
Michael, who had walked up to Jeremy as they emerged from the forest, nodded. “Yes, it’s. This place is set atop a high cliff overlooking the water. Though if you notice, if you were down on the water none of these buildings could be seen.”
Jeremy reexamined the landscape, and determined Michael to be correct. The buildings which made up the Retreats were all single story with low roofs, and the clearing which made up the location angled up toward the cliff’s edge. He also noticed none of the buildings had chimney’s, which he pointed out to Michael.
“That’s true. I studied this place during our time in Woodhall. The Um healers created a system which absorbs much of the smoke, what little cannot be absorbed is run through tubes and vented deep in the forest. It’s actually quite remarkable.”
“I wonder why they went to so much trouble?”
Michael shrugged. “Our people have always been frightened by the sea. Except for those who live in the Coastlands, that is.”
Jeremy wanted to continue his conversation, but was cut off by Walter.
“Alright, let’s talk later. It took us longer to get here than I wanted and I want to get settled before nightfall. The day after tomorrow, folks, we’re turning South. Let’s make sure we’re ready.”
With that, the old Senator moved forward toward a building which looked like a stable. As he walked Jeremy turned his face South, where he could see nothing but endless trees stretching into the unknown.