Sediment and silt trickled down the
sides of Mountain Lake, carried by
tiny water rivulets, channels cut into
the soft mud-"rain tracks," as Owen
Reeder had called them when he was
a child. Days of rain turned the crystal
clear lake muddy. Ever since the
Wormling had come, gray clouds hovered,
angry at the earth.
Such surrounded the gigantic lake
at the mountaintop, resulting in a
cone of darkness that spread over the
land. But that is not to say it rained
only there. The Valley of Shoam got
its share. In fact, most of the inhabitants
of the valley huddled inside their
humble dwellings even now as the
relentless rain beat on their thatched roofs, invading their
cupboards and living rooms, seeping into the walls. Small
animals moved on the dense forest floor, looking for some
dry place, curling up by the base of a tree or under bushes.
Two droplets fell in tandem, twin tears from a grieving
sky, and descended on the valley. If you were inside these
droplets-well, you would have to be very tiny-you would
pass the tip of the mountain that rises beyond the lake into
a sharp, rocky point, then travel down the side to the hole
the Mucker had dug to allow the Wormling passage from the
Highlands to the Lowlands.
You might land on a pine needle, exploding into several
droplets before reaching the ground, or you might fall on a
scrumhouse, the small building behind each home known as
an outhouse to those in Owen's world. He had never seen one
until he happened on this valley.
Call it fate or happenstance, but these two raindrops that
hurtled toward the ground at a frightening rate (and didn't
seem the least bit bothered by the speed) separated and
remained an arm's length apart until one landed on the boy
we know as Owen and the other on his new friend Watcher.
The former was a young teenager out of his element, out
of his comfort zone, with piercing brown eyes and a shock
of light brown hair. He was of average height and slight
build-which is to say that Owen did not look like the full-armed
football players back home but more like a chess-club
type. He wore clothes from his world-jeans, a T-shirt, and
a backpack-under a cloak the Lowlanders called a tunic,
made from the skins of forest animals. He had accepted it as a
gift from the woman inside the cottage behind him after her
husband, Bardig, had died, a victim of an otherworldly being
named Dreadwart, a being Owen could have never even
imagined only a few short days before.
The latter was a smaller being, Watcher, whose face looked
much like a Yorkshire terrier's. Let us be clear that Watcher
would have been infuriated to know we had compared her to
a dog from the Highlands, a dog that, unlike her, can't speak
and walks on four legs. Her eyes were soft and delicate, and
when she blinked the water away from her brown-and-blonde
matted fur, it made her look sad, as if tears pooled there. But
do not be fooled by her cute, gentle appearance, for, as you
will see, inside Watcher beats a ferocious heart.
Watcher's ears made perfect sentinels, listening for anything
out of the ordinary: the flap of a wing, the call of some
strange animal, or a cry for help. She had been trained since
a youngling to be alert to everything around her, and that
training had paid off when she had heard the arrival of the
Wormling and paved the way for him. But he was not as welcome
to the rest in the valley as she wished.
Owen, the Wormling, and Watcher had been together
since the passing of Bardig. Owen had wanted to immediately
search for the King's Son, who, it was said, would unite
Owen's world with the Lowlands and everyone would be
saved and happy and blah, blah, blah. But with the time of
mourning for Bardig and the heavy rains (which had coincidentally
come at the same time), Owen had relented and
stayed in the small dwelling, sleeping on the back porch
while Bardig's wife and a few townspeople sat inside crying
and moaning and trying their best to sing comforting songs.
"Why do they sing so softly?" Owen had said.
"Singing is forbidden," Watcher said, "along with the reading
of books." She nodded at The Book of the King, Owen's
huge, animal-skinned tome that weighed as much as an old
dictionary. "As far as I know, you carry the only book in the
The book contained prophecies and stories, most of which
Owen did not yet understand. But those weren't the parts that
bothered him. It was the parts he could understand. The book
invigorated and unnerved him. It caused his heart to soar at
one moment, imbuing him with great courage and mettle,
and in the next, it frightened him. It called him higher, gave
him purpose, and with its stories made him realize he was
not alone, that the world was much bigger than his tiny slice
of it. Most chilling to Owen was that he had been given the
responsibility of keeping the book and delivering it safely to
the King's Son, who was out there somewhere, even now, in
this rain-drenched world.
You might ask why Owen and Watcher were standing outside
in the cold, pelting rain. Why would they not gravitate
inside near the fire like the others? Well, that's where they
had been, but at the perking of Watcher's ears they had hurried
outside, peering first at the forest, then toward the mountain,
then down at the valley.
"Invisibles?" Owen said through chattering teeth.
Watcher shook her head. "A stirring. From the valley."
Ever since Owen had arrived, he had not moved from
this mountainside retreat. He asked about the Lowlands, its
regions, what the people did to stay alive, whether they ever
went on vacation (to which Watcher had responded with a
blank stare), and whether there were other valleys or rivers
or even oceans.
"I've lived here all my life," Watcher had said, pointing. "Up
there. Waiting for you. I've heard of all the different places, of
course. And, yes, we do have an ocean, and there are islands
and a huge river that way. But passage is difficult and dangerous.
The town council forbade us long ago from sending a runner,
even when there was a death of a family member."
Owen wiped water from his forehead and turned toward
the valley where Watcher looked, sniffing, ears twitching,
"Visitors," she said.
Three hooded figures slogged up the mountain, their boots
covered with mud, walking right where only days before
Dreadwart had flattened a schoolhouse and trees. Owen had
to look away, the fear of that day threatening to return.
"Let's leave," Owen said. "Let's take what Bardig's wife
packed and find the King's Son."
"You can't, Wormling. The initiation-"
"No one here can read the scroll you showed me. I can't
even read it. How are we supposed to go through some ceremony
where no one knows what to say?"
"It is required."
"It's a ceremony. It means nothing compared to finding the
King's Son so I can-"
"Anger," Watcher said, nodding toward the three who
marched with even more determination up the muddy hillside.
"There is rage among these."
"I don't care-"
"Perhaps you should."
"-if someone is mad. I don't care if people expect me to
go through some ritual that proves I'm a real Wormling. It's
not even in the book."
Watcher narrowed her eyes at him, and the fur beside her
mouth drew itself into a knot. "Bardig gave his life to protect
you, to keep you from the enemy. He was the one taught in
the ways of the Wormling, the only one who still believed
you would come."
"Other than you," Owen said, calming.
Watcher seemed resolute. "He was clear that when you
came-not if but when-the initiation must take place. It is
more than just words. It is required. Period. I would think you
would be more respectful of the dead and abide by his wishes."
Owen followed Watcher up the hill to another tree ripped
out by its roots. Fresh worms crawled in the moist earth as if
even they were looking for a dry place. Small animals scurried,
obviously sensing something.
"I can't be expected to live up to the expectations of
people I don't even know," Owen said. "They didn't send me
Watcher turned on him. "Can't you trust in people who
want you to succeed but who know there is more to your
quest than simply finding someone and handing him a book?"
Her ears twitched again, and her eyes widened. "The animals
are telling us something. Danger is near."
"Worse. Much worse." Watcher loped up the hill as fast as
any creature Owen had ever seen. She stopped and turned.
"Wait here. Try to stay out of trouble."
Owen rolled his eyes. He was wet, cold, and eager to be on