“Look ahead,” Kieran said. “You see how the road climbs somewhat, then drops out of sight? That is the edge of the valley.”
“It’s almost a shame to get there,” Kaveri said. “This is a beautiful area. All these rock formations and little ravines and water everywhere, and everything green grows so big and healthy. I wonder if the people living in the city can appreciate just how lucky they are. Probably not. City people seem happier with walls around them.”
Kieran smiled. “You won’t be disappointed with the Valley of Umako.”
“If you say so.” Kaveri had doubts, Tyrel knew. “Once people start trying to control and organize nature, it always seems to lose something.”
“This garden has been there for several centuries, and it is unique. There are other roads we could take east, some of them more direct. I chose this one for a reason.”
Personally, Tyrel had doubts, too. Looking at beds of flowers lacked much appeal. But he and Madoc owed Kaveri more than going along with a boring detour, and they wouldn’t have to stay there long.
They already had a room in an inn that catered to tourists visiting this garden, and Kieran had insisted that they leave their weapons there with their shared pack; that made both brothers nervous, a lifetime of training stronger than the more recent evidence that they didn’t need them at all times, but they’d learned to trust Kieran’s judgement and acquiesced. Well, mostly.
There were few other people in sight, travelling in either direction. Those they encountered coming from the direction of the valley, though, generally greeted them with courteous nods and often even friendly smiles.
Part of the way up the slope, they passed a stone bench carved in simple graceful spirals, just as the man resting on it got to his feet again. He was, Tyrel estimated, in his middle years, well-fed and well-clothed, in fairly good condition. He smiled.
“Well met, strangers. It’s always good to find company on the road.”
Kieran nodded acceptance. “Even a road that climbs upwards and leaves one short of breath for talking,” he said amiably, which made the stranger laugh.
“True enough. Have you been to the Valley before?”
“I have, some time ago. My family have not.”
“I make time to spend the day there several times a year. Too much arguing over prices and debts and fretting over your children’s choices will make you old before your time, without a chance to escape it now and then and remember what will be here long after we’re dead and forgotten.”
“A valuable perspective. Since we happen to be travelling not too far from here, a detour is a small price to pay for an opportunity to see the Valley of Umako. There’s nothing like it, and little else to equal it.”
It was interesting, Tyrel reflected, how Kieran’s entire demeanour, and even much of his accent, shifted so easily when he needed to interact with people other than the three of them. Interact with humans, really, though that was a hard concept still to accept: they were no longer human. This more outgoing self was, Tyrel was certain, a mask, Kieran’s way of hiding not only what he was but that he never had been human to begin with.
Kieran chatted genially with the man the rest of the way to the top of the slope.
Kaveri, who had been a step or two ahead of the rest in some impatience all the way up, stopped in her tracks. Tyrel caught up with her, found her gazing out over the valley, eyes wide.
“Oh, Tyrel, look at it! That doesn’t look all tamed and sterile at all!”
Tyrel turned to look.
Below them was a deep valley, in the shape of an uneven oval with asymmetrical and rather pointed ends, the sides steeply vertical.
At the bottom, he could see areas that had been separated by hedges or fences of varying designs, and within each area, a different theme seemed to rule. The compartments were fluid in shape, possibly fit into the contours of the land itself, and some ran right up the sheer walls in the form of sculpted terraces. There were a few buildings scattered around, but they gave the impression of being part of the whole. He was certain he could see a web of elevated walkways of rope and wooden slats, linking terraces and tall artificial platforms that were constructed between separate areas but not directly within any. Several waterfalls poured down over the edge, presumably feeding the bodies of water of various shapes and sizes.
Despite himself, he discovered that he was rather curious about what might be down there.
The broad stone path down formed a series of switchbacks, with a railing of stone carved in the same spiralling designs the bench above had—and there were a few more benches here and there, some of them occupied. Tyrel paused briefly to check.
“Living rock,” their road-companion said. “The whole path’s cut out of the hillside with the barrier left for safety and the benches to rest on. The order that cares for the Valley have their homes and the like cut into the face. That way they aren’t taking space from the valley floor that could be used for the garden itself.”
“Defensible,” Madoc murmured, low enough that Tyrel doubted the townsman heard.
He had a point, Tyrel admitted. Narrow access route, structures exposed only on one face, and anyone coming down the switchback would be both restricted to and defenceless against ranged attacks. Still…
“Why would anyone attack a garden?” he asked, just as quietly. Madoc only shrugged.
Directly below them was an area paved with stone, but an elaborate design, like a many-petalled flower, showed against it in pale blue. From the ground, the overall pattern must be impossible to make out, but from here, it was striking. Surrounding it was a head-height fence, the lower part stone, and above that verdigrised bronze, the vine-like curves of which wouldn’t do anything to reduce its effectiveness as a barrier; several sets of gates stood wide open, facing varying directions.
At the final landing, there was a box carved rather prominently into the cliff face, with a steep-sided funnel leading down to a hole too small to get a hand through. Kieran paused to drop a handful of coins into the funnel, to rattle their way down and disappear into the hole—and continue noisily for a couple of heartbeats longer before reaching their destination. Tyrel could see no way to access the contents from here, so there must be a system that allowed the Valley’s owners to collect the coins from beneath or behind. If you had to have money unguarded in a public place, it looked like a reasonably secure system.
Down one final length of switchback, and they were on, well, paving stones, but flat ground, at least. The pale blue turned out to be tiled channels of water, no more than a handspan wide, that snaked around and made it necessary to watch one’s footing. One of those tall sturdy-looking wooden towers, this one larger than the others, stood at the far edge, with a considerable number of rope-and-slat walkways anchored to it; not one but two sets of switchback stairs offered access to the heights for anyone dedicated enough to tackle them. Tyrel figured Kaveri would be up there before long: she found heights as irresistible as water.
The air here was different: not only was it quite still, maybe from the steep walls blocking wind, but it was perhaps just a little warmer than above, and was thick and somewhat humid. Tyrel inhaled deeply—in human form, he lacked the acute senses of the fox, but he was learning to pay more attention to his sense of smell. The strongly green scent had overtones of flower perfumes and spices and other intriguing things for which he had no name. Birds, and possibly other things, filled the heavy air with a chaotic chorus of different sounds, some melodic, some less so.
“Here.” Kieran handed each of them a few coins. “You’ll find places you can buy a drink or a snack. Or trinkets to remember the place by, but what you buy, you carry. If we’re separated, I’ll meet you here at dusk. Most of the gardens are closed to the public overnight. This is a safe place for those who treat premises and people with respect. There is no hurry to see everything today, we can return tomorrow.” He gestured invitingly towards one of the open gates. “That might be a good direction to begin.”
The butterfly garden, Tyrel learned from a helpful man who was tending one of the beds of plants, had been planted with foliage carefully chosen to appeal to butterflies, moths, and selected other insects. The colourful display fascinated Kaveri, and she tore herself away only with visible reluctance. Tyrel, personally, concluded that it was pretty but not worth a trip here.
Near it, shaded by spreading trees larger than anything Tyrel could recall ever seeing before, ferns blanketed the ground, around rocks and boulders overgrown with mosses. The path traced a winding course up and down shallow rises and over small streams, with stepping stones rather than bridges. Near the centre was a pocket-sized valley, home to a pool into which a tiny waterfall splashed gently, and next to the pool was a near-circular ring of rather blandly-coloured mushrooms.
“There are tales,” Kieran said softly, his voice nonetheless somehow out of place here, “of small spirit creatures that use such circles as dancing grounds or meeting places. It is said to be very good luck for a human to encounter them, or very bad.”
“Do they exist?” Kaveri asked.
Kieran smiled. “Tales generally grow from a seed of truth, and spirit creatures can take as many forms as there are gods to create them. Here, specifically? The earth-lord of this valley has not, to the best of my knowledge, done so.”
The path meandered on.
“‘Ware below,” a voice said from above, startling Tyrel into an abortive attempt at grabbing for his knife. This gardener, like the one in the butterfly garden, wore mottled dull brownish-green, simple unfitted trousers and belted tunic, that blended into the background without drawing attention at all. In middle years, he was extremely fit, climbing agilely down from a tree using a rope doubled over a branch as extra support; reaching the bottom, he released one end and tugged the other, so it came snaking down to pool at his feet.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” he said apologetically, stooping to gather the rope.
“Looking up by chance and seeing you would have been worse,” Kieran said. “Trimming branches?” That was obviously not it: there was no debris on the ground.
“Cleaning up,” the gardener said. “Bells in the trees disturb the atmosphere.” He tapped the bag slung at his side, and it jingled.
“Pranksters from the town.” The gardener didn’t meet Kieran’s eyes as he said that, Tyrel noticed with interest. He kept his attention on coiling the rope with great precision. “Now and then the idea goes around that mischief here makes them heroic and popular. It passes.”
“Soon, I hope,” Kieran said sympathetically. “Your order has no need of further work to do.”
“Truth, that, but what needs doing, we’ll do. Again, I’m sorry to interrupt. Enjoy your walk, and I hope you encounter nothing else out of place.” He gave them a shallow bow and turned back in the direction of the valley with its mushroom ring.
“Odd,” Kieran murmured, a moment later, once the gardener was some way off. “It does occasionally become a fashion among youth in the town to pull pranks, but they’re more often dares to fetch something at night to prove entry. Vandalism is unusual.”
“It doesn’t sound actually destructive,” Madoc pointed out. “Nothing was damaged. It would take some nerve and some brains, being up one of these trees in the middle of the night and hanging a bunch of bells without getting caught. Maybe someone was out to impress a girl or something.”
“Very likely. The things young males will do in order to draw the attention of a young female are endless and not always sensible.”
“Hey,” Tyrel protested.
Kieran looked sideways at him, and smiled. “I didn’t say that was true only of humans. Or, for that matter, that young females won’t go to equal lengths in their own ways.”
Mollified, Tyrel let it go.
They exited the fern forest through a sort of short wicker tunnel heavily overgrown with vines bearing bell-shaped pale flowers. The sunlight on the other side was sharp contrast to the pleasant shade, and they paused to let their eyes adjust before stepping out into the next garden.
(chapter continued next post!)