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
“Is it time already?” He asked the silhouette which had nudged him awake.
“It is, Walter wanted to be away before Sunrise,” replied Terrin’s voice. The guard then held out something toward Jeremy in the shadows. When the youth reached his hand for it, Terrin allowed it to drop into his open palm. It was a small canvas bag, with a small lump inside. “This is one of the evertorch shards we chipped yesterday. You can use it to get dressed, we’re trying to keep light to a minimum.”
Jeremy grunted thanks to his friend, who then turned and left his room. With deep sigh of regret Jeremy withdrew the evertorch shard and allowed is strange glow to illuminate his actions. With his vision restored he pulled himself from the warm confines of his sleeping bag, and quickly threw on his clothes as some protection against the morning chill. Somewhat warmed by his clothing, Jeremy then set about packing his gear for the trip ahead. Not more than five minutes after Terrin had pulled him from slumber, Jeremy was ready to depart The Valleys.
He emerged from his room and found most of his friends already gathered in the central hall. Only Ama and Talum were missing, and Jeremy guessed the two healers were doing some final negotiations over which restoratives to take with them on their journey South. Michael silently offered Jeremy a bowl of Luke-warm oatmeal and an apple by way of breakfast, and he sat down to consume his meal.
As Jeremy ate, Ama and Talum emerged from one of the side rooms and accepted similar rations from Michael. They too sat down to eat in silence. No on seemed to be in a hurry to speak.
Finally, Walter stood up and cleared his throat.
“Well, I’m not one for makin’ speeches.” Ama and Jeremy shared a conspiratorial grin at Walter’s words, and the old senator barked at them, “What’s so funny?”
“Makin’” Jeremy blurted out in a reasonable impersonation of his mentor.
As Walter blushed, Ama broke into a wide smile. “It appears Old Fox, now that you’re leaving The Valleys altogether, you’ve decided to reacquire your accent.”
“Ya don’t…” Walter pursed his lips in frustration as Ama and Jeremy shared a silent giggle at Walter’s expense. “Fine you don’t decide to acquire an accent, Meddle. It just happens!”
“Right, and sometimes it just plain forgets to happen,” Tollen chimed in.
The rest of the group laughed for a bit as Walter’s frustration deepened, eventually matching the color of his cheeks. Finally, he held up his hands in surrender.
“All right. All right! You’ve had your fun at my expense. Now, may I continue?”
The group fell silent as Walter again cleared his throat. “Now, as I was saying, I’m not much of a speech-maker. But we’re about to head off into lands our people haven’t travelled for centuries. At least no one but Jeremy, that is.” Walter tilted his head toward his young friend, who nodded back in acknowledgement.
“I feel it’s right, now that we’re here, to give everyone a chance to turn around and go home. Jeremy, it seems, has to go on. And I made a promise to go with him. But there’s no reason anyone else must travel this road.”
“Well, Walter,” Michael responded first. “Terrin and I were ordered by the President to keep watch over Jeremy. So that’s reason enough for us. We’re going with you.”
“And I’ll not abandon Jeremy after taking him this far, Old Fox. You’re stuck with me,” Ama added. She then walked over to the old Senator and took his hand. At that moment Jeremy could sense Walter’s relief. He’d been worried Ama might actually decide to remain behind.
“Walter, this trip is a Seeker’s dream come true. You really think I’d stay behind? You’re more dense than I thought.”
“Thanks for the ringing endorsement, Tollen.”
“I’m on the trip, Old Fox, I didn’t say I was comfortable you were its leader.” Walter grunted in response to the Seeker’s words, but Tollen broke into a toothy grin.
“Well, I have to go. My research is only half-complete. If I turned back now I’d never be able to publish my findings…”
“Talum,” Tollen interrupted. “You’ve not officially published a paper in 15 years. What makes you think this topic is any different?”
“I’m going,” continued Talum, completely ignoring the Seeker’s barb.
“We all must go,” Sheilak breathed into the hall. As she spoke the small evertorch shards almost went black, and the temperature seemed to drop another few degrees. The group sat in stunned silence for a beat as the torches reassert end their light.
“Uh… fine. You’re all coming. I can’t say I expected any less. But remember, you all volunteered for this trip. I don’t want to hear any complaints when the rations get short or your boots wear thin.”
“We won’t, Walter,” Jeremy smiled his response.
“Well, OK, Michael checked the horses and they’ll be fine until the caretakers get here this afternoon. So, Tollen, go throw everyone’s dishes in the sink and let’s get going.”
Tollen grumbled, but collected the breakfast bowls from which the group had eaten and set them in the kitchen sink with a slight crash. “Nothing broke,” he said as he emerged back into the central hall. There wasn’t much else to say after that. One by one the group shouldered their packs and headed out the door into the early morning darkness. They crossed the clearing to the Southern boundary of the Retreats and halted at the Forest’s edge.
“Terrin gave you each an evertorch shard this morning. You should also notice he’s tied strings around them so you can wear the shards around your necks. The light doesn’t throw far, but it’s bright, and should allow us all to see each other. Let’s get them out and see how they work.”
The group each removed their shard from the canvas bags Terrin had given them, and pulled them over their heads. A familiar honey-glow filled the space where the party stood, but the light spilled unnaturally. It seemed to have a hard limit to the area it illuminated.
“OK,” Terrin spoke after their lights were in place. “Michael and I scouted here yesterday and found a game trail which runs almost due South. There’s a small stream about three miles down which we’ll have to ford, but the water seems to be fed by nearby hot springs, so it’s not cold. I think you’ll find the forest is also warmer than you might expect.”
“OK, folks. Terrin’s in the lead,” Michael added. “Follow him and watch your step.”
Terrin stepped into the forest, pushing aside some of the low-hanging branches and brush as he went. Slowly, each of the party members followed his lead, with Michael taking up the rear. Once past the initial boundary of the woods, the forest floor was much more clear than Jeremy imagined it being. Most of the tree branches were high above eye-level, and even the ground brush was tolerable enough to handle. Even so, Jeremy couldn’t imagine passing through the woods here in the Summer, when even the thin covering of ground brush in this part of the forest would have made passage extremely difficult. Soon, Terrin found the game trail and the party began making better time as they traveled toward their first major obstacle. The stream was as far as the two guards had scouted, beyond that the terrain was completely unknown.
Jeremy soon heard the sound of running water in the distance, and noticed the air smelled a bit like rotten eggs. As they approached the stream Jeremy guess the bank was seven or eight feet down to the water’s surface, and the water itself didn’t seem that deep. Jeremy surmised he’d probably only get wet up to his knees when he crossed. As they prepared to descend down the bank, however, Jeremy heard something which make his blood freeze in his veins.
“Halt and Identify yourselves!”
The party stopped in a silent panic.
“Identify yourselves,” the voice repeated, growing impatient.
“We are travelers to distant lands, and I am a guard of The Valleys,” Terrin replied. “Who are you to order me to halt?”
Michael shifted his weight as if to make his way forward to relieve his subordinate, but Terrin held up his hand and motioned him to stop.
“Well, ‘Guard of The Valleys,’ you’re a little far from home. We do not recognize The Valleys or their guards. Now, we will be coming over. You will all remain still while we do so. Should you fail to comply with our orders there will be consequences. But if you hand over the young man called ‘Jeremy’ we will generously allow you to turn around and return the way you came.”
Jeremy stiffened at the sound of his name, and Walter placed a hand on his shoulder. While Walter didn’t possess Ama’s calming abilities, he appreciated his friend’s gesture nevertheless. On the other side of the gully, two men emerged from the brush and began to make their way down toward the stream.
“Danger! Flee!” Sheilak chimed in his head.
“Walter, Sheilak says we need to run,” Jeremy whispered.
“I inclined to agree, Lad. Michael?”
“I think we need to stand our ground, Walter. Whoever these people are, we’re not going to get a better chance to defend ourselves than this ground right here.”
Jeremy heard Walter breathe out a sigh. “All right. Ama, you and Talum move to the back. If anyone gets hurt I’d like it to not be our healers.”
“All right, Walter,” Ama replied quietly.
“Tollen, Michael, let’s make our way up to Terrin. Jeremy, they want you, so stay here.”
“But Walter,” Jeremy began to protest.
Jeremy huffed his frustration. “All right.”
“Good,” said Walter as he lifted his hands from Walter’s shoulder. Then he, Tollen, and Michael moved past him and fanned out on either side of Terrin. The two men from the opposite bank had reached the water at this point, and were not pleased to see how the four men had moved to block their ascent.
“We told you to remain where you were.”
“Well, the way I see it,” Walter called out. “There’s four of us up here and two of you down there. So why don’t you halt and tell us who you are. And maybe we’ll you go on your way. At any rate, there is no world where I’d hand over Jeremy to anyone.”
The man speaking from the bottom of the gully stood straight up and grinned. “So that’s the way you see things?”
Walter crossed his arms and grinned. “It is.”
“Very well.” The unidentified man then raised his right hand and pointed up the opposite bank. He then held up one finger to the sky. As he did so a loud crack exploded though the trees of the forest and echoed down the gully. Most of the party flinched in shock at the unearthly sound. Terrin, however, collapsed. A bright red stain began to spread out along his shirt.
“Terrin! No!” Jeremy shouted. He move to rush forward, but Walter held up his hand.
“Stay where you are, lad!”
“Walter, let me help!” Ama pleaded from her position under the trees.
“If anyone moves, another of you will die.”
Jeremy glanced down at Terrin, who had crumpled on to his back. He was breathing heavily, and the color was draining from his face. He caught Jeremy’s eye and, between his painful gasps, mouthed, “Stop them.”
Jeremy cocked his head in confusion, wondering what Terrin meant. Walter, on the other hand, had his attention fixated elsewhere.
“At least allow us to treat this man!”
“You were given orders, you disobeyed. His death is the result. We are coming up, do not move.”
The men began to ford the stream, upon reaching the near bank they looked up and motioned for the group to move back. As the men up front began to shuffle away from the gully’s rim, however, Terrin groaned with all the strength he had left, “Stop. Them!”
“We will move,” whispered Sheilak in Jeremy’s head. Her voice, he noticed, was tinged with sadness. Jeremy noticed Tollen wince, and for a moment wondered if the Seeker had not suffered a wound similar to Terrin’s. In a moment, however, his bonding crystal grew ice cold against his chest. Suddenly, Sheilak’s voice filled the forest.
“You are not welcome here!”
The man who’d been ordering the party to remain still suddenly lost the smug grin he’d been wearing. “They’ve got bonded!” he shouted.
He and his companion turned to flee back the way they came, and on the opposite bank Jeremy noticed several other figures moving to withdraw. As they fled a figure of deep shadow, shaped like a giant bird, emerged from Jeremy’s crystal. As shocked as he was at this sudden appearance, Jeremy was even more surprised to see a similar figure emerging from Tollen.
“You have broken the treaty, you have destroyed the peace. You are not welcome here!” the two figures shouted in unison. They then swooped down and picked up the two men who had so recently been threats. The men screamed in terror as they were lifted up and thrown far up into the sky and out of sight. The shadow figures then floated up the opposite band and disappeared into the woods beyond. After a few moments similar screams of terror echoed out from the trees beyond, until all at last was silent.
“What in all The Valleys?” Walter whispered as he stared into the forest opposite his position.
Jeremy’s legs felt like rubber, and Tollen had collapsed to his knees in exhaustion. The youth wanted to do likewise, but forced himself to make his way to Terrin. He was beaten to the fallen guard by Ama, who quickly raised his head and tore open his shirt. As she looked down, her opened in shock.
“What could have possibly done this?” A huge hole had been formed in Terrin’s chest, out of which blood was pouring. The guard’s breathing was becoming less pronounced, but his lips continued to move as though he was trying to speak.
“Hush, Terrin,” Ama said as she attempted to stop the bleeding from his wound. “Save your strength.”
“I’ve seen what could do this,” Talum’s voice pierced the eerie silence which had fallen upon the group as Ama worked to save Terrin. “But they’re not supposed to be out. We locked them all away.” The Um Healer’s face was pale with shock as he spoke.
Walter stepped carefully around Ama and used his hands to gently guide Talum’s face to make eye contact. “Who locked what away, Talum?”
Talum blinked several times. “The Um healers. We have them in storage. No one is even supposed to know about them.”
“The fire arms.”
Walter’s face contorted in preparation for his next question, but before he could speak a voice groaned from the ground.
“Jeremy!” cried Terrin, reaching out his hand to the youth.
“I’m here, Terrin,” soothed Jeremy as he knelt down and took the offered hand.
The guard’s breathing was becoming more rapid again, as he attempted to gain enough breath to speak. Jeremy looked up at Ama for comfort, but the healer only shook her head. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“You have to… promise.”
“Promise what, Terrin?”
“Stop… them… promise me,” the guard gasped.
“I promise, Terrin. I do.”
Upon hearing Jeremy’s reply the guard’s eyes relaxed and a smile crept over his face. With a final sigh the hand Jeremy was holding lost all its remaining strength.
Terrin was gone.