Fiction Tuesday – The Breath

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

Welcome to the Valleys Cover It didn’t take long for the company to open the largest of the bunkhouses at the Retreats and unload their animals. After their gear had been transferred Walter and Michael led the pack animals to the stables, while the rest of the group sorted out their supplies. Given the pathless journey they were about to take, the group wasn’t planning on taking the animals with them, which caused Jeremy some worry.

“But what will become of the horses?”

“It’s alright, Jeremy. Walter invited several of the Summer staff to come out here the same day we’re planning to depart. They think they’re coming out to help us out with our work. The animals won’t be alone for long.”

After that Jeremy raised no more objections, and settled in with the group as they organized their gear. With no animals to help share the load, amenities were being kept to a minimum.

“Pack light, folks,” Walter had warned. “We have no idea what to expect once we head into the forest.”

As Jeremy went though his gear he discarded excess baggage which made his pack too heavy to carry for long periods. Thankfully, Walter had insisted he follow a strict exercise regimen while he was living in The Ravine. He could carry far more than he had expected. In the end he settled for three sets of clothes, a set of metal eating utensils, a water canteen, some soap, and a toothbrush. He also added some extra socks to the pack, just in case. The boots commonly worn in The Valleys were delightfully waterproof, but they would be traveling in hard country. He left behind several books he’d been reading on the political structure of The Valleys, as well as pair of more decorative shoes for more formal affairs, four sets of clothes, and a ceramic basin for washing. His pack so lightened, Jeremy would be able to add his sleeping bag, his share of the party’s rations, and one of the tents they’d make later that night. Walter had brought along some heavy waterproof canvas “in case there any leaks in the roof.” They’d be using this material to create their shelters.

All around Jeremy the rest of the party were doing much of the same calculations he had done. Ama and Talum, he noticed, were going through their medicines together, determine which would be necessary for their travels. Knowing how Ama preferred to be prepared for any possibility, he felt particularly anxious for his healer friend as he watched he set aside restoratives which were to remain behind.

He also wondered what struggles the rest of his friends might have as they went through their own gear. Jeremy, who had been in The Valleys for only a few months, didn’t have any attachments to the few possessions he had. The others, he realized, might have some more difficult choices to make. Not wanting to interrupt his friends’ work, Jeremy caught Ama’s eye and indicated he was going to head out on to the porch. She hesitated for a moment, but then nodded silently as she continued to sort through her restoratives.

Jeremy exited the bunkhouse and sat on one of the benches which lined the structure’s porch. He leaned back and tried to imagine what the Retreats must be like in the height of Summer, when families gathered and enjoyed this space carved out of the wilderness which surrounded The Valleys. Soon, Michael and Walter emerged from the Stables and made their way over to the company’s shelter. Noticing Jeremy, both men waved in greeting as they approached.

“Done already, lad? That was fast!”

Jeremy shrugged. “Well, I don’t have very much to begin with. And what little I have I’m not really all that attached to.” He paused for a bit, “I think after Ama finishes sorting her restoratives I may ask her which of her discards she’d like me to carry. I still have some room in my pack, and the weight isn’t all that bad.”

Walter smiled. “I’m sure Meddle would like that very much, lad. I know she’s been fretting at getting caught empty-handed on the road.”

Michael coughed slightly to capture Walter’s attention, and the old senator inquisitively cocked his eyebrow in response. “Yes, Michael?”

“Sorry to interrupt, Walter, but you never responded to the question I asked in the stables.”

“Hmm. Oh very well. I suppose it would be better to know if anyone is out there skulking in the woods. Grab Terrin and do a circuit if you must.”

Michael nodded, “Thank you sir. I appreciate it.”

Michael then passed by his two friends, nodding in acknowledgment toward Jeremy, and entered into the bunkhouse. A few moments later both he and Terrin emerged. The two guards smiled on their way by, but didn’t stop as they walked out into the clearing and then into the woods beyond. Walter went back inside to see what help they might lend their friends as they packed.

Michael and Terrin returned a few hours later, just as the Sun was dropping below the horizon. The party enjoyed a hot meal from some of the provisions they’d be leaving behind in the Retreats, and Michael then went off to organize his gear as everyone else began the process of cutting canvas to make their tents.

“That rascal!” Walter quipped. “He went on that patrol just to avoid some sewing!”

Ama smiled, “I doubt that very much, Walter. Besides, we’ll be doing the sewing tomorrow.

It didn’t take long for the canvas to be cut into the sections which would form their tents. Talum, exalting in even the relatively simple engineering problem of tent-making, took charge of the process. He seemed particularly fond of critiquing Walter’s skills with the scissors, claiming at one point, “Well, if it rains I’m sure we’ll be able to use this panel as a shower. The rain should pass through it extremely well.”

Walter didn’t speak to him the rest of the evening.

The group went to their beds early that night, tucked into their sleeping bags as the temperatures dropped outside and the fire in the wood-stove died down. Spring had come to the Retreats, but at night Winter continued to remind the world of it’s presence.

The next day Michael and Terrin went on another patrol. Shortly thereafter Walter and Tollen headed off in another direction to check for items which would make decent tent pools in the other Retreat buildings. Talum was not pleased.

You are the one who wants to leave tomorrow, Walter, and that means we’ll have to have these tents completed. Dodging the needle won’t help our cause.”

Jeremy noticed the absent-minded Um healer became rather insightful when faced with an engineering challenge. Tents might not have been on par with cutting a tunnel through a mountain, but it had awakened a portion of the brilliance which often hid behind his befuddled demeanor.

“We’ll be back in one hour!” Walter snapped back. “And last I checked the tent aren’t complete without the poles to prop them up. Just start without us!

To Jeremy’s shock, Walter kept his promise. He and Tollen returned to the bunkhouse before the hour was up, carrying a number of short poles which appeared to be perfect for the tents they were constructing. After dumping their poles in a corner, both men accepted a needle and some heavy thread and sat down and joined the sewing efforts.

They completed sewing the panels for six tents by noon. Talum added loops for the tent pegs he’d brought all the way from The Ravine. After which he set up each of the shelters and began to paint the canvas with a horrible-smelling white paint. This dried clear, but the smell didn’t seem to dissipate.

“Talum, what is that you’re putting on the canvas?” Jeremy inquired.

“Hmm? Ah, this is a special waterproofing paint.” The healer smiled as he observed his handiwork. His wide grin remained on his face as he turned toward Jeremy. “It smells terrible, doesn’t it?”

“I’d noticed that, yes.”

“Well of course you did, it’s hard to miss!” The Um Healer chuckled as he began applying a second coat to the shelters. “Thankfully, the smell goes away once the substance dries, we wouldn’t want to sleep in that.”

Relieved, Jeremy wandered away from the healer. He didn’t stroll too far from the bunkhouse, as he didn’t feel comfortable leaving the sight of the group. As he passed the stables, however, Terrin called to him.

“Jeremy, would you mind giving me a hand?”

Nodding, Jeremy strode over to the Stable door, where he encountered a most unusual sight. Terrin had collected a number of evertorches from the Retreats, and appeared to be chiseling pieces from them. As Jeremy’s shadow crept over Terrin’s workspace, where he’d already returned to work chiseling off bits of evertorch, he looked up.

“Oh good, you came.” He reached down and picked up a bucket. “Would you do me a favor and pick up the evertorch pieces on the floor? I tried filling the bucket as I made the fragments, but it didn’t work out very well.”

Accepting the Bucket, Jeremy scanned the room. Most of the fragments were the size of small rocks, but some were were little more than glowing splinters. “You want me to collect all of them?” he asked.

Terrin looked up from the evertorch he was shaving. “Just the larger ones, if you don’t mind.”

Jeremy nodded and began to fill the bucked with pieces of evertorch. After a few minute he stopped once more and asked, “Terrin, what is it you’re doing, exactly?”

“Oh, I forgot. You probably wouldn’t know this!”

“Know what?”

“Well, long time ago, the non-persons who live in forests around the Inner Valleys made a rather startling discovery. I thought it was appropriate to put it into practice for our journey.”

“What discovery?”

“Well, the non-persons live nomadic lives, even when someone like Merkot isn’t trying to end their existence. People tend to treat them with suspicion, after all.”

“Ok,” replied Jeremy, growing a bit impatient.

“Well, when you’re nomadic the last thing you want to be carrying around is a full-size evertorch! Those things are heavy, and even the lighter ones would be difficult to carry thought the woods.”

“So what’s that got to do with chipping off bits from this evertorch.”

“In their pursuit of a nomadic existence, the non-persons discovered the size of an evertorch doesn’t have any impact on the brightness of the light it creates, just the amount of space it fills.”

Jeremy’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “That’s…”

“Not possible? I know! But when it comes to evertorch light, it’s true. Non-persons use many fragments of particularly brilliant evertorches, and the end result is a camp which is well-lit with light that doesn’t travel very far, and is much easier to carry. I explained it to Talum once, he seemed very excited by my observation.”

“But, if this is true why doesn’t everyone do this to their evertorches?”

Terrin grinned. “Most people don’t know about it. After all, most people don’t consider actually speaking to non-persons. They simply view them as vermin.”

“So how did you find out about it?”

“My father. I accompanied him on a patrol once, and we came across a group of non-persons he’d had some dealings with. We shared a meal, exchanged information about current goings-on, and spent the night.”

“Your father didn’t seem to think of non-persons as vermin.”

Terrin shook his head. “No, he didn’t. And he wanted me to understand them the way he did. Anyway, as darkness fell I began to become frightened. I couldn’t see any evertorches. That’s when my father pointed out the box the head of the group had pulled out of a nearby shelter. He lifted the lid and the all the children came rushing over to pull out small, glowing, stones. They surrounded the camp and, when they were done, we were living in a bubble of light in the middle of the darkness.”

Jeremy tried to imagine the scene Terrin described, and found himself in awe. “What was it like?”

“Well, you’ll soon find out!” Terrin replied, pointing to the bucket in Jeremy’s hands.

“And you really think we’ll need all these?” Asked Jeremy as he picked up another significant chunk of the evertorch.

Terrin shrugged. “Why knows? We know Sheilak is friendly, of course, but we’ll still need light and…”

“And what?”

“We’re heading out into the unknown. Who know what we may encounter? We best be prepared or anything.”

Jeremy nodded in agreement, but inwardly wondered hat threats his friend was imagining.