Fiction Tuesday – Returned

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 Terrin’s hand had become limp in Jeremy’s grasp, but the youth refused to let go. Ama knelt beside him, weeping openly. Tollen and Michael, both ashen-faced, forced themselves to turn away from the heart-wrenching scene and scout out along the stream in search of any other nearby dangers. Talum shook in grief, and stream of silent tears rolled down his cheeks.

Walter placed a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “He’s gone, lad,” he said in a choked voice. “He’s gone and we have to go.”

Jeremy shook his head. “No. I won’t leave him like this.”

“Jeremy,” Ama soothed, reaching for his other shoulder. But he shrugged off her reach and pulled back.

“I don’t need to be calmed, Ama!” he shot back. “I won’t leave him like this,” he declared, pointing down to the tortured form of his fallen friend.

“Lad, we have to be concerned about our safety too. Sheilak and her… friend,” Walter caste an accusing glance in the direction Tollen had gone as he said this. “They took care of the people here, but there might be others out there. And that… ‘fire arm’ was so loud they’re sure to come running. We have to move.”

Instinctively, Jeremy closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. After several uncomfortable seconds he lifted his head and looked up at Walter. “There were others out there, a party of twenty about 3 miles away.”

Ama’s head cocked inquisitively. “Jeremy, how do you know that?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter?” He snapped back. Collecting himself he swallowed hard and added, “I’m sorry for snapping, Ama. The point is they were there, Sheilak and the other Guardian dealt with them.”

“You mean…” Ama began to ask.

“They killed them, yes. And right now they’re flying through the woods looking for anyone else. There’s no one there.”

Walter looked into his protege’s eyes and finally sighed. “All right, lad. I don’t know how you know what you do, but I’ll take you at your word. I’ll gather wood for the fire.”

Jeremy looked up in shock. “What?”

“The fire. Ama and Talum should have what we need.”

“Need for what?”

“To turn the body into ashes, that’s what you want, isn’t it? The smoke from the fire will be easy to spot, but if you really think we’re safe I’ll see it done.”

“No, that’s not what I had in mind at all.” Jeremy turned to Ama, “Is that what people do in The Valleys?”

“Of course it is, Jeremy. What else would we do?”

“I want to bury him.”

It was Walter’s turn to be confused. “Bury? You mean, dig a hole in the ground and toss him in? Where in The Valleys did you get an idea like that?”

“It’s called a Return,” Tollen’s voice answered unexpectedly as he returned from his scouting, causing everyone to jump. “Talum and I came across it in the Presidential Archives.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Jeremy nodded in agreement. “That’s what I want to do for Terrin.”

Talum nodded solemnly. He knelt down as he pulled his pack off. “I have a spade here somewhere,” he muttered as he began to rummage through his collection. Eventually, he held up the small hand tool in triumph and offered it to Jeremy. “It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.” After handing off the tool the Um Healer stood and edged slowly back along the game path toward the retreats. After a few yards he stepped off the path to the left and called out, “Here will be a good spot.”

Jeremy stood and made his way over to the spot which Talum had indicated. “This is mostly sand,” he said as he bent down and pulled up some of the newly growing brush. It pulled free from the soil without resistance. “The roots here won’t be that difficult to remove.”

Jeremy nodded. “Thank you, Talum.”

Talum nodded. “I know I don’t much connect with people. I do. But I’ve known Terrin most of his life. He was always a kind man.” Talum didn’t wait for Jeremy to respond. Instead he began to pull up brush in earnest in order to mark a a spot to dig. As he cleared a patch, Jeremy began to dig. He was eventually joined by Walter, who had pulled out his own spade. Together, the two dug out a shallow hole, just long enough in which to lay Terrin’s body.

Michael returned from his scouting just as the pair were finishing their work. “Walter, what are you doing? I’d have though you’d have moved on by now. We’re not safe here.”

Sweat had now mingled with Walter’s tears, and when the Senator glanced up his face was caked with grime. “Jeremy says it’s safe. And the lad wanted to honor Terrin.”

“He says it’s safe? How would he possible know that?”

Walter shrugged. “I don’t know, he just does.”

“Walter, we really should move.”

“Easy there, Captain,” Tollen interjected. “Let’s bring our fallen friend here and allow Jeremy to do what he feels needs done.”

Michael and Tollen shared a look, and the guard finally nodded quietly. The two men retrieved Terrin’s body and carefully bore their friend to the spot which had been prepared. Ama followed silently, she’d not left Terrin’s side as the work had proceeded.

“How should we lay him, son?” Tollen asked.

“His head needs to be South,” Jeremy replied, pointing toward the stream. “So place him that way, please.”

“All right,” Micael responded. As he lowered Terrin into the hole Jeremy noticed tears had finally cracked his professional posture as well.

With Terrin’s body so rested, the party all stood and looked toward Jeremy. “What now, lad?” Walter asked.

Jeremy stood up and made his way to the spot where Terrin’s head lay. “Terrin, you were a friend to me and to all who suffered. You gave your life as you lived, protecting others. May you lie in rest until the end of days.” Jeremy pause as he considered his next words. When he finally spoke his voice shuddered with checked sobs of grief, “You are dust, and we return you to dust. Rest peacefully.”

With that, Jeremy began to shovel the excavated soil over his fallen friend. His tears renewed in earnest, and he was soon joined in his efforts by Walter and Michael. With their help the work was completed, and a small mound had formed in the clearing Talum had made.

“One more thing,” Jeremy said as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Sheilak, I know you’re there,” he called out.

Yes,” responded the Guardian’s voice from the trees. It was tinged, Jeremy noticed, with sorrow.

“I’m sorry for what I asked you to do. I know it hurt you.”

It was necessary,” she replied.

“I know, but I also know it’s not your way.”

Sheilak didn’t respond to this, but the entire party seemed to feel the weight of the Guardian’s sorrow fall over the surrounding forest.

“I need to ask for one more thing,” Jeremy said as he picked up a large rock lying nearby. “I’ve returned Terrin to the soil, but his grave should be marked. Will you polish this for me?”

What to say?” Sheilak responded. Her voice was showing signs of strain.

“You know my heart, say what’s in it.”

In response, a shadowy figure descended from the canopy. It had lost much of the definition it had held when it first appeared shortly before, but the resemblance to a large bird was still visible. As the Guardian descended, Jeremy placed the rock down by the spot where Terrin’s head lay and stepped back, motioning for others to do the same.

The shadow bird enveloped the stone, and soon sounds of scratching and grinding were echoing out from the darkness. When the shadow lifted again it flowed back into Jeremy’s bonding crystal, revealed a polished rock which now bore an inscription in it’s newly reflective surface.

Here lies Terrin, a guardian of life.

Nodding his appreciation, Jeremy looked at his friends. “I need to wash off, then I think we can go.”

Michael motioned as if he wanted to protest, but was waved off by Walter. “I’ll join you lad.”

The two then made their way back toward the steam and found some dry boulders near the bottom of the embankment which had been flattened by the water over the years. Michael followed along and kept watch from up above.

As the two undressed and prepared to enter the water Walter asked the question he’d had on his lips for the past half hour.

“Lad, you said you knew those other people were gone. And all this business with a ‘Return.’ Where did it all come from?”

Jeremy smiled sadly as he sank into the water. “I’m beginning to remember,” he stated just before his head sank below the surface.