For those of you who didn’t read Book One, BEYOND SEASIDE, or would like a refresher…
Will’s past is a mystery, even to Will. What can it mean, to wake up alone on an isolated mountainside, with a cloak, a pack, and no memory? Will follows the only course he can think of—the course of a river, that is, which leads him at day’s end to the village of Seaside.
In Seaside (where he is familiar to no one), his mystery deepens. For starters, no one ever comes to Seaside by way of the mountains. No one with a lick of sense (according to Marna, the head of the first household Will comes to) even steps foot in them. They are shrouded in legends, mostly of the fearful sort. Will’s arrival doesn’t help the mountains’ reputation. Neither does his very brief story, or the unnatural behavior of a pack of wolves, or that of an oddly knowing raven which follows him out of the trees.
Marna, despite some unease, offers Will food and board in exchange for labor on her farm. She needs the help. Her husband disappeared two years back in a storm at sea, and her second son, Brenner, is (supposedly) too sickly to work. He’s not too sickly, though, to make Will’s misery his new chief pursuit in life. Spiteful and unhappy, he’s desperate to feel superior to someone—anyone—and Will’s “servant” status makes him a target. Fortunately, Brenner’s fifteen-year-old brother Jornan is nearly his opposite. He’s bright, thoughtful, and decent. These traits earn him little favor from his sharp-tongued mother, but Will appreciates them plenty. From the start, Jornan and his little sister treat Will kindly. Will also finds an ally in Jornan’s gregarious, high-spirited cousin, Kye.
One day, Kye charms his Aunt Marna into letting Will and Jornan spend the morning with him. Kye’s plan is to visit a stone ruin north of town. The place is avoided by the villagers, and for good reason. But Will saw smoke from one of its chimneys as he descended the mountain; and the report of it roused Kye’s curiosity. As it turns out, the ruin’s occupant is not a bit pleased to have company. She sends her large dog out to launch an attack. The boys convince her to call off the dog, lower her bow, and tell them her story. Pascal has run away from a nearby town—from an inflexible father, and a hateful marriage arrangement, which is to be forced on her the day she turns fifteen. The three boys agree to keep her whereabouts secret. They also commit to bringing her food, news, and other helpful items. Because Marna keeps Will and Jornan very busy, this task falls mostly to Kye (who does not complain).
Back in Seaside, the big news becomes Will’s encounter with old “Mad Eli,” who fancies himself a seer. Eli addresses Will within earshot of about half the town. He refers to the “horror” in Will’s past, and the “peril” in his future. Seaside, he says, will share in the peril. The village’s troubles will include “early graves” and a terrible “stranger from the sea.” Some of Eli’s listeners (including Marna) are skeptical. Others decide Will is cursed, and they’d prefer he take his curse elsewhere.
Will worries that the second group has it right. He thinks of leaving. A scholarly old villager named Hanan sits him down and convinces him otherwise. Like Will, the old man has a mysterious past. Unlike Will, Hanan’s is mysterious only because he won’t talk about it. He also declines to divulge secrets he apparently knows about Will. Will trusts him in spite of this, and takes his advice.
Several weeks later, he has a change of heart. Brenner and his pranks drive him to it. In a burst of anger, he impulsively packs his few things and heads into the forest. He halts to rest, drifting—or so it seems—into sleep and dreams. In this state, he watches as a centaur steps from among the trees. This creature (called Cromwyn) addresses Will by name. He commands him to return to the sea valley, for it is “not yet time” to leave. Cromwyn further admits to taking Will’s memories. Although Will still suspects he’s dreaming, he mounts a protest. It seems to him that he has a right to his own memories. Cromwyn rebukes him. “Your rights, so far as I’m concerned, are less important than your inherited responsibilities to others.” Apparently, Will has a debt to repay on behalf of his family—all dead, except him. The “burden” of the past would have hindered him, and so, in Cromwyn’s estimation, it had to be removed. The centaur echoes some of Mad Eli’s unpleasant predictions. He also tells Will his ancestors were a “good people” grown complacent and prideful, and thus unable to recognize evil once it entered their midst. Their sense of invulnerability was their doom. Pride, says Cromwyn, is a great enemy. Will is to guard against it always.
On a more immediate note, he is to be back in Seaside by nightfall.
Will obeys. He’s not so sure, anymore, that he wants to know who he is. What he really wants, more than anything, is a father, a mother, and a normal life. Weeks pass. Brenner has abandoned pranks in favor of pretending Will doesn’t exist, which suits Will just fine. In late July, Seaside begins gearing up for its Summer Festival (otherwise known as the “best time of the year”). Several ominous events cast a shadow on the preparations. And a stranger from the sea—a Captain Nels—docks his magnificent ship in the harbor. He hails from the far-off land of Valestrom. His interest in Will is immediate; he therefore makes a point of befriending Brenner.
Meanwhile, north of town, Pascal is in a world of trouble. Under cover of night, Captain Nels has sent boatloads of men to occupy her stone ruin. They mean to use it as a base while they spy out nearby villages. They are a gruesome, coarse, and blood-thirsty breed of men called Druinen. Pascal just barely escapes them. Kye is then able to spy on the spies, learning from their talk that Valestrom will send several ships back to Seaside in October, conquering and killing, claiming the new harvest for its own, and hauling men and boys off to slavery.
The Summer Festival is now in full swing. Captain Nels convincingly plays the part of an honorable man. Those who know otherwise have reasons for keeping silent. There are two exceptions. One of the captain’s men informs Jornan that his father (and the others thought lost at sea with him) were actually taken aboard a slaver, and that they still live and labor in Valestrom’s dark mines. And Brenner, in a rare crisis of conscience, warns Jornan that Captain Nels is about to kidnap Will and imprison him below deck. The ship will sail before sunup. Will will die.
Jornan arrives at a quick plan. He remembers from maps a great walled city called Alton. Hoping it might be safe, he flees with Will into the dark forest. Alton is a long ways off, and reaching it means passing through the mountains, but Jornan knows of no better option. Kye and Pascal join the getaway. They, too, have been warned (by Hanan) that it’s time to run.
It’s a precarious escape. Tracked by Druinen, they scramble into the rugged, myth-haunted mountains. In the days before their trackers catch up, they read a letter Pascal brought from Hanan. In it, the old man confesses that he lived for “many generations” in Valestrom, leaving it only fourteen years earlier to save his life. “The kings are (now) gone,” he writes, “and Valestrom is much changed.” He also offers some advice for the journey:
“The mountains through which you will pass are, of course, the source of many legends…most are true. In Seaside, the tales tend to be of the frightening variety. Much that is wonderful is also hidden among the slopes. You will doubtless receive unexpected aid. Stay alert. Things are not always what they appear to be…Legends in my homeland told of a folk called both ‘Keepers of the Light’ and ‘People of the Lake.’ If they exist (I prefer to think they do) you will be quite fortunate if you meet them.”
With the letter come several gifts, including a peculiar compass. One of its two arrows points always to Valestrom. “You may use the arrow to avoid Valestrom, or to seek it out,” states the letter, enigmatically. For Will, there is a book. Despite Will’s respect for the old man, he stuffs it unread into his pack. He suspects it holds secrets he no longer wants to know. Stubbornly—defiantly—he refuses to learn the truth.
In the weeks that follow, the four travelers learn well that appearances can be deceptive. A fierce woodland tribe turns out to be good-hearted and hospitable…at least, to those they judge deserving. (They’re not at all hospitable to the Druinen, who finally catch up, and are promptly slain.) An enchantress named Mia, on the other hand, seems the picture of benevolence. Instead, she’s a terrible danger. Getting into her house—a place filled with illusions, and steeped in magic—is a whole lot easier than getting back out. Finally, the feat is managed. The four continue their trek to Alton.
As they near the city, Will reluctantly takes up Hanan’s book. It’s a history of Valestrom, with another of Hanan’s letters enclosed. Here, Hanan describes to Will the “Valley of Song”—Valestrom—as it once was…a land of stunning beauty, abundant resources, and protective natural barriers. The House of Aran, which ruled the land, turned out generation after generation of noble, well-intentioned kings. They considered their position one of responsibility rather than privilege. It didn’t hurt that the great eagle lord, Stron, had given this family several special gifts. These included remarkable musicianship, the ability to communicate with birds, and a certain stone dubbed the Eagle Keep, which was always in the keeping of the heir to the throne. (It happens, now, to be with Will; he wears it on a chain around his neck.)
Over time, continues the letter, the kings lost interest in the counsel of the eagle lord. Life was good; they failed to see the need. The gift of speech with the birds faded and died. During Will’s grandfather’s reign, a child appeared one day in the castle gardens. When no one claimed little Damian, the good-hearted king grew fond of him. He raised Damian alongside his own three sons. (The eldest of his boys was Will’s father, Hans.) But Hanan, who sometimes advised the kings, sensed evil in Damian. He warned the king. The king wouldn’t hear it.
Hans’ younger brothers eventually died in strange “accidents.” Hans grew up and took a bride. Soon after, sensing imminent danger, he had her secreted out of the kingdom. That very night, he and his family were put to death. Hans’ wife wasn’t pursued. She wasn’t of the line, and Damian didn’t realize she was pregnant.
Hanan concludes his letter by stating that he doesn’t know where Will was raised, how Damian learned of him, or why Damian is so intent on finding him. “I don’t imagine there’s any pleasure in learning that you are heir to a lost throne,” he says. “You perhaps believe you would have been content as a farmhand in Seaside. That would have been a waste. It is not what you were born for…I hope you will decide to reach higher…(If you do), seek out the eagles. They remain on the high peaks which ring Valestrom.”
Will folds the letter up with dismay. The lost crown means nothing to him. The loss of family means everything. He also can’t imagine what Hanan expects him to do about it. His denial deepens, and when Kye jokingly refers to him as a prince, Will is ready to slug him.
The travelers reach Alton. Will is suddenly assailed by memories…not of people, but of places. He leads the others to his old house. It’s now little more than a burnt out shell, with three unmarked graves alongside. He still can’t remember whose they might be.
The city is not the refuge they had hoped for. Too late, they learn that Valestrom occupied it immediately after Will left. As they witness the cruelty of Damian’s lordship, Will’s self-pity fades. It occurs to him that he’s not the only one paying a price. He, Pascal and Kye fall in with an underground resistance movement. It’s captained by a man named Adam, who used to know Will and his family very well. Jornan has a harder fate. He’s spotted by one of Captain Nels’ men. This man was sent to Alton to watch for the Seasiders. He intimates that Brenner fared badly when Captain Nels learned of his “betrayal.” He sees to it that Jornan is tossed into a dungeon. Jornan, like his brother (or so he believes), is sentenced to death.
The Resistance goes to work to free him. It also seeks a way to get the other three out of the carefully watched gates. It’s quite a trick. While it’s in progress, Kye talks the group into sending military aid to Seaside before October’s attack.
Will, Kye, Pascal and Jornan are reunited in the mountains west of Alton. They take leave of Adam and the Resistance, heading again into the unknown. This time, they head for Valestrom.