The Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval was not exactly what Veronica had been expecting. Of course, no one under the age of fifteen had ever been there, supposedly, although some of the older children talked about sneaking out there at night, but just enough failed to come back from such expeditions to make such trips, and the stories that went with them, very rare. What Veronica found there didn’t resemble any of those stories anyway. Even in her addled state, she could see enough to realize most of those stories were told by people who had never been to the place in person.
There weren’t rolling banks of fog oozing over the edge of the Valley, nor did jagged stone line the cliffs on the northern side like the teeth of a great beast. The ground did not rumble with the hunger of the god that dwelt within. It looked just like any other valley around the province, a strip of dry, low laying land full of scrub that clung to the sides of cliffs for dear life.
It looked totally innocuous. Even standing on the cliff’s edge and looking down at the stony floor of the Valley, Veronica could see no sign of its long history as the seat of Dagon. They did not give her long to look over the Valley before they threw her over the edge. When she figured that when she reached the bottom what the Valley looked like wouldn’t matter so much anymore.
But the Valley wasn’t out of surprises for her yet. Almost as soon as the hands had left her back and her feet had left the cliff she felt the change. For just a moment the sky seemed to flex and bend, Veronica felt like she was being turned inside out. Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. After that, she would have been hard pressed to say what exactly happened next. There was a brief glimpse of a vast expanse of bright blue, very different from the gray overcast skies a moment before, then something solid whacked her in the back of the legs and sent her tumbling.
Veronica went spinning through the air for a heart stopping second, then slammed roughly onto a a steep, grassy slope and rolled, scrabbling frantically for purchase. She had just enough time to realize that a river had somehow managed sneak into the bottom of the Valley where it hadn’t been two seconds ago before she rolled into it.
In three seconds the biggest problem in her life had gone from being unable to fly to being unable to swim.
The current of the river probably would have swept her away entirely if it hadn’t first slammed her into the pylon holding up the bridge. By this point, Veronica was well and truly sick of slamming into things but, since she had expected her life to end with a much more violent encounter with the ground five seconds ago, in many ways it was a step up. Of course, she didn’t have much time to be philosophical about it just then. What she did manage to do was grab hold of the rough wood and clung to it for dear life.
For just a moment she held perfectly still and tried to gather her wits. She was, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of a valley. But instead of the dry desert floor, scoured by the passing of many rains, the ground was covered in thick, green grass that ran down to the river. She was clinging to the side of a strange, patchwork bridge that looked like it had been sewn together by giants and dropped into the river from the sky. The idea made her giggle.
She was laughing so hard that she didn’t realize people were running across the bridge until one of them had shimmied down the column next to her and started yelling at her. “Oi, lass! Don’t just stare, grab me broom!”
At that moment the words didn’t mean much to her, but the intent behind his pushing a long pole with bristles at one end was clear. Veronica shifted her grip on the beam she was clinging to and grabbed clumsily for broom. The morning’s several falls, plus whatever was in that drink she’d been given before being taken to the Valley that morning, had left her quite dizzy and a little giddy. She did manage to grab hold eventually, and the man dragged her over and looped a rope around her waist. In a matter of moments she had been hoisted out of the water and into a crowd of half a dozen men of various ages, who all looked at her and muttered to one another incomprehensibly.
The man with the broom came climbing up the side of the bridge and threw himself over the railing with a final huff. For a moment he just stood there, brushing water out of his clothes and tsking. For some reason, instead of just splashing water around and leaving his clothes wrinkled, the action actually sent sheets of water running from them until, a few seconds later he was quite dry. The image was so funny Veronica found herself giggling again.
The men on the bridge, and Veronica noticed that they were all men and they were almost all armed with hammers, saws and other tools of the carpentry trade, clustered around her and started to babble at her incoherently. The man who had climbed down the bridge earlier waved them back, saying, “Break it up, boys. No call to all be hovering over her like a flock of vultures. Now,” he knelt down and gave her a quick lookover. “Who are you, lass?”
For the first time, Veronica noticed a few things. First, he didn’t have his broom thing anymore. Guiltily, she wondered if he had dropped it in the river trying to save her. She had no idea what such a thing might be used for, or if it was valuable. Second, if she listened closely, she could tell that this man was speaking the same language as everyone else, but for some reason he made sense when the other men didn’t. Third, everyone was dressed strangely but his clothes were strangest of all.
All the men were wearing loose fitting pants, a kind of clothing she’d thought only the wealthy wore – and she’d never met any wealthy carpenters. And their tunics were worn tucked into the pants, which struck her as a very hot way to dress. Her rescuer looked even more overloaded with clothes. His pants were cut off at knee length and some sort of close fitting cloth tubes were pulled over his feet and calves. He wore something that looked like sandals with closed toes and heels on his feet, just like everyone else, but he also wore what looked to be a leather cloak over it all except, instead of simple holes for his arms it had sleeves like a tunic. A weird kind of bag with a stiff brim slouched on his head. She would have though he would sweat to death except she was beginning to realize that it was actually much colder here than she had expected it to be. And she was beginning to suspect that wherever she was, she was a very long way from the Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval.
One of the carpenters said something to the now-broomless man, the only person on the bridge other than Veronica who wasn’t carrying something that looked vaguely carpenteresque. He took the strange bag off of his head and scratched his hair. “I don’t know. It looks like she’s been drugged.”
More strange talk, although Veronica knew enough to recognize a question when she heard one. Then the man said, “I can see she can’t be more than ten. Just because I can tell she’s been drugged doesn’t mean I know why, or what to do about it. Maybe-”
“Who are you?” Veronica asked, swaying dangerously as took a step closer to him. “Why is it so cold?”
He stared at Veronica for a minute, then slumped. He had great round cheeks that looked something like a pomegranate and even they seemed to wilt a bit. “Great. She’s not from around here, is she? Did anyone understand that?” No is recognizable in any language, and it was the first local word Veronica picked up. After hearing it a half a dozen times it would be hard not to. The man turned back to her. “Sorry, lass. I can’t understand you.”
She shook her head in dismay. “That’s not how talking works!” For a moment she planted her hands on her hips and braced her feet, just like she’d seen her mother do a dozen times and like she had often done with her younger brothers and sisters. She quickly regretted it because the wind stole the warmth from her like a greedy dog after meat. She quickly wrapped her arms around her middle and hunched against the cold, muttering, “If you can say the words you can understand the words.”
He sighed and said, “That’s not the way the gift works.”
This time, Veronica did her best to listen to what he was saying. The words weren’t familiar but somehow she was understanding them. That made picking out one to repeat fairly easy. “Gift?”
One of the other men said something and the leader, since that was what her rescuer looked to be, turned and irritably said, “Thank you, Franz. Why don’t you boys get back to work and let me handle this? She can’t understand what you’re saying anyway.” For all his chubby cheeks and slight build, the burly carpenters were apparently willing to take his orders because they went back to one end of the bridge with little protest and started to work. The leader sighed and reached into his coat, pulling out a folded blanket that looked like it had seen better days. Veronica had no idea where he had been keeping it. “Here,” he said, shaking it loose, “Wrap yourself up or the cold will be the death of you.”
Veronica eyed the blanket and backed away a step. So far she had been given over to Dagon, thrown off a cliff, nearly drowned in a river that hadn’t been there the day before and dragged out by strange men who couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t going to be brushed off by someone who thought getting dressed meant pulling a bag over your ears! Taking extra care to make sure it was pronounced right, she slowly said, “Gift?”
“That’s right. It’s one of me gifts, always being understood no matter where I go or who I talk to.” He held the blanket out for another moment, then sighed and folded it over one knee and looked her in the eye. “But I can’t understand other people the same way. When I was given the gifts, the Queen told me it was to make sure I was paying attention to the people I served. You see, I’m what you call a dustman. And that’s me name.”
“Dustman,” she said slowly, rolling the word over her tongue and trying it out.
“That’s right. I’ve got me broom.” He reached into a kind of pouch sewn into the side of his cloak and, even though the stitching that held the pouch in place barely looked big enough to hold his hand, he managed to pull the long bristled pole out of it in a single fluid motion. Veronica stared in disbelief, but the Dustman apparently didn’t notice. Or, it would occur to her later, he was used to it. “Of course, a broom ain’t much good without a dustbin, is it guv?” He stood and reached back to whack a round metal can with a fitted lid, setting it rattling. “Take it all together and what do you get? Your humble servant, the Dustman, here to cart off those things you no longer want.”
Veronica couldn’t quite suppress a grimace at the thought that his being there was particularly apt, in that case. Fortunately, he misinterpreted the gesture and quickly swept a few steps closer. “Why, it don’t even matter what it is you’re stuck with. Water?” He brushed a hand across one shoulder and, just like before, the water seemed to flee from his touch, running out of her clothes and onto the bridge in small streams. “Let old Dusty take care of it for you. Dirt on your clothes?”
He backed up a step and somehow produced a strange looking and admittedly filthy tunic from somewhere inside his cloak. The edges looked tasseled, except the threads of the tassel were woven into intricate designs. The Dustman fingered the strange tassels along the left sleeve. “Why, just look at this lace! A dozen washings and it will never come clean! Your dustman takes just such refuse away!”
He snapped the garment once and it released a cloud of dirt which, instead of settling on the ground, drifted over and seemed to melt into his leather cloak. The tunic now looked completely clean and, with a flourish, the Dustman slipped it up his sleeve with no regard for the fact that it really shouldn’t fit there. “It doesn’t matter the kind of mess you have on your hands. To be a dustman is to serve. And to serve, we’re given the gifts. Oh, there’s more than just a few of them.” He shrugged. “But they all help us do our job.” A flicker of something sad flashed across his face. “They help me, I suppose. And they keep me honest. So you can understand me, but I have to work to understand you, see?”
He thumped one hand on the railing of the bridge. “I can carry any kind of junk as far as I need to, however I like, and it will never make me tired, no matter how big it is.” The lid of his metal can lifted slightly and Veronica caught a glimpse of three heads, a goat, a lion and a lizard, all poking out from under it, before the Dustman quickly stretched his other hand out and hammered the lid back down. “Or how contrary it feels about it. But,” he picked the blanket up from the ground where he’d set it, “I cannot take anything a person actually needs.”
Then he held the blanket out to her again. “And I can’t keep it if I find someone else who does.”
Veronica took the blanket hesitantly and wrapped it around her shoulders. It wasn’t much but, now that she was dry, it was an improvement. She looked up at him and thought about what he had just said, and what his gift had told her it meant. She wasn’t sure she trusted it. The only other people who she’d seen capable of things like what he did were the priests of Dagon. At least, she had heard them speaking in other tongues, she didn’t know if they could stick long poles into their belt pouches. It didn’t seem like something priests would need much.
And the priests of Dagon were not people she loved overmuch. On the other hand, if these people didn’t speak her language, what were the chances they knew who Dagon was, or would care that she was under his censure? And what’s more, the priests never gave anything away. That, more than anything else, made up her mind. Once again she did her best to repeat the word correctly. “Honest.”
The Dustman grinned and patted her on the shoulder. “Glad to hear it. Now, maybe we should get you into town and some food in your stomach. You don’t look like you’ve eaten properly in a long time.”
Veronica just shrugged. Six mouths to feed was a lot, no one in her family had eaten well in some time. She was a bit suspicious of this Dustman still, but she figured she could work for her food as well as anyone else, and what more could they really want from her? At the very least, it had to be better than being sent to-
A commotion at the end of the bridge distracted her. A new man had arrived. Like the Dustman, he wore a long, brown cloak with sleeves, but it looked more ornate. At least, it had a belt and a few other strange attachments to it that the Dustman’s did not. But any ideas Veronica had about their being related vanished as soon as the man started across the bridge. He was saying something in a loud voice that carried without crossing the line into shouting, but he clearly didn’t have the Dustman’s gifts because Veronica had no idea what he was saying.
At least, not until he got closer and the last sentence in his speech included one word Veronica had hoped to never hear again.