Before first light we set out for the Silent Vale.
It was a day's journey and we were led by a tall gangling boy called Elii, who carried a small sword and two hunt knives at his belt. These were the only visible reminders that our journey involved danger.
Also travelling with us was a young Herder. He represented the true danger that lay ahead. Around our necks we wore the dull greymetal circlet that denoted our orphan status. This would protect us from robbers and gypsies for as orphans we owned nothing. Normally the presence of a Herder would be enough to frighten off robbers who feared the wrath of the powerful Order.
But this was a very young Herder, little more than a boy with golden bum-fluff on his cheeks. His eyes held characteristic Herder zeal but there was a nervous tic in one of his eyelids. I guessed this was his first duty away from the cloisters and he seemed as nervous of us as of any supernatural dangers he might perceive. It was well known that Herders had the ability to see the ghosts of the Oldtimers flitting about as they had done in the terrible days when the sky was still white and radiant. This ability was Ludgiven so they could warn of the dangers that lay in following the evil ways of the Beforetimers.
I looked sideways, wondering if he could see anything yet. It was understood the visions came most often on tainted ground where the land had not long ago been untouchable. The Silent Vale was such a place, edging close on the Blacklands.
Ours was considered a perilous journey, but an important one. The expeditions to recover whitestick were vital to the orphan homes, enabling them to function independently. The Council had ruled that none but orphan homes might mine the rare substance, perhaps because orphans were the most expendable members of the community. Collection of the whitestick was fraught with danger, for the substance could only be found in areas verging on tainted. The whitestick was itself poisonous to the naked skin and had to be passed through a special process designed to remove its poisons, before it was of any use.
Once cleansed it was marvellously versatile, serving in everything from sleeping potions to the potent medicines prepared by the Herders.
I had not been to the Silent Vale before. This was the Kinraide orphan home's area of collection and it yielded high-grade whitestick. But the Silent Vale was considered dangerously close to the Blacklands where the poisons of the Great White still ruled. It was even whispered there were traces of Oldtime dwellings nearby. I was thrilled, and terrified, to think I might see them.
We passed through a side gate in the walls of the Kinraide complex. The way from that door was a track leading steeply downwards. Seldom travelled, it seemed a world apart from the neat, ordered gardens and paths within Kinraide. Bush creepers trailed unchecked from side to side, choking the path in places.
Elii chopped occasionally at the vines to clear the way. He was an odd boy. People tended to shun him because of his profession, and for his close connections with the orphan home, though he was no orphan. His own father had worked in the same capacity and his grandfather before that, until they had died of the rotting sickness that came from prolonged exposure to the whitestick. He lived in the grounds at Kinraide, but did not associate with us.
One of the girls in our party approached him. 'Why not travel along the crevasse instead of going up this steep edge?' she panted.
For some way we had begun to climb a steep spur along one side of the rise. Northward the dale ran up into a glen of shadows.
'The path runs this way,' Elii snapped, his eyes swivelling around to the rest of us, cold and contemptuous. 'I don't want to hear any more whining questions from you lot. I'm the Lud of this expedition and I say there'll be no more talk.'
The Herder flushed at his nearly blasphemous mention of Lud's name, but the restraint in his face showed he had been warned already about the rude but necessary youth. Few would choose to do his job, whatever the prize in the end. Elii turned on his heel and led us at a smart pace to the crest of the hill. From the top we could see a long way – the home behind us and beyond that the town centre, and in front of us, far to the west lay a belt of mountains, purpled with the distance. The boundary of untainted lands. Beyond those mountains, nothing lived. Hastily I averted my eyes for no one understood all the dangers of the Blacklands. Even looking at them might. do some harm.
The dawn came and went as we walked, a wan grey light seeping into the world. The path led us towards a pool of water in a small valley. It was utterly still and mirrored the dull overcast sky, its southern end dark in the shadow of the hills.
'I hope we are not going to swim that because it is in the way,' said the same girl who had spoken before. I stared at her defiant face, still stained with the red dye used by Herders to mark the children of Seditioners. Elii said nothing but the Herder gave her a look that would have terrified me. A nervous young Herder is still a Herder, but the girl tossed her head.
We came to the pool at the shadowed end only to find the path cleaved to the very edge of the water.
'Touch this water not!' the Herder said suddenly in a loud voice that made us all jump.
Elii looked over his shoulder with a sneering expression. A little further on a cobbled border, crumbled in places and overrun with sprouting weeds, ran alongside the track. It was uncommon enough for me to wonder if this was from the Beforetime. If so I was not much impressed, but the Herder made a warding-off sign at the border.
'Avert your eyes,' he cried, his voice squeaking at the end. I wondered if he saw something. Perhaps there were faint impressions of Oldtimers fleeing along this very road, the Great White mushrooming behind them, filling the sky with deadly white light.
An eastward bend in the path led us around the edge of a natural stone wall and there we came suddenly upon a thing that was unmistakably a product of the Oldtime. A single unbroken grey stone grew straight up into the sky like the trunk of a tree, marked at intervals with bizarre symbols, an obelisk to the ancient past.
'This is where the other Herders spoke their prayers to Lud,' said Elii. 'They saw no danger before this.'
The young Herder flushed but kept his dignity as he made us kneel as he asked Lud for protection. The prayer lasted a very long time. Elii began to sigh loudly and impatiently. Making a final sign of rejection at the unnatural grey pedestal, the young priest rose and self-consciously brushed his habit.
The same girl spoke again. 'Is that from the Beforetime then?' she asked. This time I did not look at her. She was dangerously careless and seemed not to think about what she was saying. And this Herder was nervous enough to report all of us because of the one stupid girl.
'It is a sign of the evil past,' said the Herder at last, trembling with outrage. At last the girl seemed to sense she had gone too far and fell silent.
One of the others in our party, a girl I knew slightly, moved near and whispered in my ear. 'That girl will be off to the Councilcourt if she keeps that up.'
I nodded slightly but hoped she would not prolong her whispering. Her name, I remembered suddenly, was Rosamunde.
To my concern, she leaned close again. 'Perhaps she doesn't care if they send her to the farms. I heard her whole family was burnt for Sedition, and she only escaped because of her age,' she added. I shrugged and to my relief Rosamunde stepped back into line.
When we stopped for midmeal, Rosamunde sought me out again, sitting beside me and unwrapping her bread and curd cheese. I hoped there was nothing about her that would reflect on me. I had heard nothing of any detriment about her, but one never knew.
'That girl,' Rosamunde said softly. 'It must be unbearable to know that her whole family is dead except for her.'
Unwillingly I looked to where the other girl sat alone, not eating, her body stiff with some inner tension. 'I heard her father was mixed up with Henry Druid.'
I pretended not to be interested, but it was hard not to be curious about anyone linked with the mysterious rebel Herder priest.
Rosamunde leaned forward again, reaching for her cordial. 'I know your brother,' she said softly. I stiffened, wondering if he had sent her to spy on me. Unaware of my withdrawal, she went on. 'He is fortunate to be so well thought of among the guardians. There is talk that the Herder wants to make him an assistant.'
I was careful not to let the shock show. I had heard nothing of that and wondered if Jes knew. He would have seen no reason to tell me if he did.
Jes was the only person who knew the truth about me. What he knew was enough to burn me and I was frightened of him. My only comfort lay in the tendency of the Council to condemn all those in a family tainted by one Misfit birth, Jes might not be burnt, but he would not like to be sentenced to the farms until he died. As long as it was safer for him to keep my secret, I was safe, but if ever I looked like being exposed, Jes would denounce me at once.
Suddenly I wondered if he had engineered my inclusion on the whitestick expedition. As a favoured orphan, he had some influence. He was too pious to kill me himself, though that would have been his best solution, but if I died seeking whitestick, as many did, then he would be innocently free of me. Elii called us to move.
This time I positioned myself near him, where Rosamunde would not dare chatter. The Herder priest walked alongside muttering his incantations. We had not gone far when a rushing noise came to our ears through the whispering greenery. We came shortly thereafter to a part of the path which curved steeply down. Here a subterranean waterway, swollen with the autumnal rains, 1ad burst through the dark earth, using the path as its =ourse until the next bend.
'Well now,' Elii said sourly.
The Herder came up to stand uneasily beside him. 'We will have to find another way,' he said. 'Lud will lead us.'
Elii snorted rudely. 'Your Lud had better help us on this path – there airi t no other way.'
The priest's face grew red then white. 'You go too far,' he gasped, but Elii was already preoccupied, drawing a length of rope from his pack and tying the end around a tree. Then he slung the other end down the flooded path.
The Herder watched these movements with horror. Elii pulled at the rope, testing it, before swinging agilely down to the bottom. Back on dry ground, he called for us to do the same, one at a time.
'We'll be dashed to pieces,' Rosamunde observed gloomily.
The Herder gave her a terrified look as one of the boys started to climb carefully down. Several others went, then Rosamunde and I. The rope was slippery now and hard to grip. As well, I found it difficult to lift my own weight. Two-thirds of the way down, my fingers became too numb to cling properly and I fell the last two spans, crashing heavily into a rock as I landed. The water soaked into my trews.
'Get her out. The water may be tainted,' Elii growled, then yelled up for the priest to descend.
I was completely breathless and dazed from my fall and my head ached horribly where I had hit it on the rock.
'She's bleeding,' Rosamunde told Elii.
'Won't hurt. Running blood cleans a wound,' he muttered absently, watching the priest descend slowly and with much crying out for Lud's help. I seemed to be watching through a mist.
When the Herder reached the bottom, he knelt beside me quickly and began reciting a prayer for the dead. 'She's not dead,' Rosamunde said gently.
Seeing that I was only stunned, the priest bandaged the cut on my temple with deft efficiency, and I reminded myself again that for all his youth, the Herder was fully trained in his calling.
'Come on,' Elii said impatiently. 'Though I doubt we'll make it in time now.'
'Was the water tainted?' I asked, ignoring Rosamunde's audible gasp. There was no point in caution if I died from not speaking out.
The Herder shook his head and I wondered how he knew without doubting that he was right. Herder knowledge was wide ranging and sometimes obscure, but generally reliable.
We walked quickly then, urged on by Elii. My head ached steadily but I was relieved it was only a bump and not a serious infection. I had a sudden vision of my mother, applying a steaming herb poultice to my head. How quickly the pain had subsided on that occasion. Herbal lore was forbidden now, though it was said there were still those who secretly practised the art of Healing. I walked into Elii, having failed to notice he had called a halt.
'Through the Weirwood lies the Silent Vale,' he said. 'If we are too late today, we will have to camp here and enter the Vale tomorrow.'
'The Weirwood?' said someone nervously.
The Herder was not alone in his consternation at the thought of sleeping out. 'It is dangerous to be out at night in these parts,' he said, 'where the spirits of the Beforetime rest uneasily.'
Elii shrugged, saying there would be no help for it if the sun had gone. He had his orders. 'Perhaps your Lud will cast his mantle of protection over us,' he added with a faint glimmer of amusement. Elii cared little for convention, knowing his worth.
We entered the Weirwood and I shivered at the thought of spending a night there. It had an unnatural feel and I saw several in our group look around nervously. We had not walked far when we came to a clearing, and in the centre of this was the ravine they called the Silent Vale. It was very narrow, a mere slit in the ground, with steps hewn into one end, descending into the gap. The light only reached a span or so into the ravine, and the rest was in dense shadow.
I understood now Elii's haste, for only when the sun was directly overhead would it light the Vale, and it was almost overhead now.
Elii urged us again to hurry if we did not want to spend a night in the Weirwood. We entered the ravine gingerly and descended the slippery steps fearfully. By the time we reached the bottom, I was numb with the cold and we huddled together at the foot of the steps, afraid to move where we could not see. Moments passed and the sun reached its zenith, piercing the damp mists that filled the ravine and lighting up the Vale.
It was much wider at the base, and unexpectedly, there were trees growing though they were stunted and diseased with few leaves. A thick whitish moss covered the ground and some of the walls in a dense carpet, while the walls of the ravine exposed were scored and charred, possibly marked by the fire said to have rained from the skies during the first days of the holocaust. A faint charred stench still filled the air.
Elii handed out the gloves and bags for gathering the whitestick, instructing us needlessly to be quick and careful, never letting the substance touch our skins. Pulling on the slippery gloves, we spread out and set to work, searching for the tell-tale black nodules which concealed the deposits of whitestick.
The bags were only small, but took time to fill because the substance crumbled to dust if not handled carefully. Standing to ease my aching back once I had finished, I noticed that I had wandered out of the sight of everyone else. I could hear nothing, though the others must be quite near. I had noticed at once the aptly named Vale was oddly silent, but now it struck me. anew how unnatural that silence was, and how complete. Even the wind made no murmur. It was as if a special kind of death had come to the Silent Vale.
'Are you finished?' Rosamunde asked, apologising when I jumped in fright. 'This place is enough to give even a soldierguard a taste of the horrors. Do you notice how quiet it is, as though everything we say is absorbed?'
I nodded, thinking how all the places where whitestick was mined had the same aberrant feel.
Returning to where some of the others had gathered around the steps, we heard voices from somewhere near. 'What do they use this stuff for anyway?' one asked. 'Medicines and such, or so they say,' said another voice with a bitter edge. It was the voice of the outspoken girl marked with Herder red. 'But I have heard rumour the priests use it to make special poisons, and to torture their prisoners for information,' she added softly.
Rosamunde looked at me in horror, but we said nothing. I was no informer and I did not think Rosamunde was. But that girl was bent on disaster, and she would take anyone with her stupid enough not to see the danger. Better to forget what we had overheard.
I left Rosamunde with the others, going to examine a deep fissure in the ground I had spotted. The Great White had savaged the earth and there were many such holes and chasms leading deep into the ground. I bent and looked in and a chill air seemed to strike at my face from those black depths.
Impulsively, I picked up a rock and dropped it in. My heart beat many times before I heard the faint report of impact. It echoed in the Vale.
'What was that?' cried the Herder who had been packing the bags of whitestick.
Elii strode purposefully over. 'Idiot of a girl. This is a serious place, not the garden at Kinraide. Throw yourself in next time and make me happy.' I looked at my feet with a fast-beating heart. That was twice now I had called attention to myself and that was dangerous. Suddenly there was a vague murmur from the ground beneath our feet.
'What was that?' the Herder cried again, edging closer to the steps.
'I don't know,' Elii said with a frown. 'Probably nothing but I don't like it. We are not far from the Blacklands. Come, the sun is going.' The Herder, who came last, kept looking behind him fearfully as if he expected something to reach out and grab him.
An air of relief came over the group as we threw off the oppressive air of the Vale. Fortunately we had gathered enough whitestick and we made good time on our return, reaching Kinraide early in the evening.
To my private astonishment, Jes was among those who met us and he wore the beaten potmetal armband of a Herders' assistant.