A Short Story

The explorer took slow steps forward while approaching the first village along the journey, not far from the seacoast. Such caution, though, simply served as a ruse to make it appear that the explorer knew nothing of this region’s inhabitants, because soon enough, many of the villagers flocked around the visitor at the edge of their settlement, offering greetings, smiles, flowers, food, and water.

“Thank you for your kindness,” the explorer said. “I am Brukana, daughter of the Livnek people in the far north, sent by my tribe to see these southern lands and offer our friendship.”

Brukana had done her best to learn all she could about the people groups of this southern land for two turns of the moons during her trek here. While each tribe had its own unique dialect that she’d learned easily enough, all their verbal communication had evolved from a mother tongue that she’d also learned and planned to use exclusively to keep up her ruse of being from a distant tribe, hoping she would at least be mostly understood throughout her expedition. Given the reaction of the villagers, her words did indeed seem to be grasped—and she, of course, had no trouble comprehending their replies:

“Oh, wonderful! We bid you welcome!”

“Come, Brukana, come.”

“Yes, come and stay with us.”

“All we have is yours.”

Soon, she and nearly all the inhabitants sat on the ground around a small fire in the center of the village, close to a water well encircled by a short stone wall and covered by a thatched roof, with a tall wooden pole reaching skyward, a bright chartreuse pennant fluttering from it—the same pennant Brukana had seen from a distance as she trekked in from the shore. Throughout the evening, she and the villagers shared stories, laughed, ate, and drank of the water distributed by a youngish female—that day’s keeper of the well, Brukana learned.

“Each day, one of us serves as keeper of the well,” said the old woman sitting next to Brukana. “The water is life to us—to all living things, yes?”

Brukana nodded. “Of course. … And your water, it has such a sweetness to it, like nothing I’ve tasted before.”

The old woman laughed, and all the other villagers joined in with her.

Ours is the only water with such sweetness,” the woman said.

After taking another sip, Brukana held up the heavy crystal tankard she’d been drinking from and studied the water in the fading daylight, noting the vivid yellow-green flecks dancing about in the liquid. “I hadn’t noticed the color before. Does the sweetness come from the particles that make the water such a wondrous hue?” she asked.

The old woman smiled. “Maybe, but no one can say for certain. We do know for sure that those motes you see are the remains of male stinger-flies. Quite often, we get full segments of their carcasses in the well water—even the occasional full body … wings and all. So the day’s keeper of the well not only draws up all our water, but also strains out the bigger fragments, which we collect as compost for fertilizer. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, we have caught live male stinger-flies and tried eating them in a variety of ways—and even sampled some of the larger remains from the well—but I can tell you personally that none of them taste sweet … at all.” She let the tip of her tongue show through her lips as she grimaced and shook her head.

Brukana chuckled. “Any idea of how the insects get into the water?”

“Mm, we have our suspicions—likely it’s the males killed by the princess stinger-flies after mating in some giant colony that lives in the mountains and breeds year-round on some grand lake with an outlet that flows down this way as a river or stream and eventually goes underground to feed our well … and maybe there’s something in those headwaters that gives the dead insects their sweetness?” She shrugged. “Like I said, we don’t know anything for sure. Every generation gets curious about it and decides they’ll be the first to discover the mystery of our water—not only the flecks of stinger-flies, but also the amazing sweetness. Heh … we tell these young explorers how many before them have tried to climb the northern massif to find the mysterious headwaters, but no one has ever gotten more than halfway up the steep slopes before having to turn back because of the brutal cold and blowing snow that cuts bare skin like ice daggers. … All we know for sure is that the stinger-flies aren’t going down the mouth of the well, as we’ve kept it tightly covered for as long as our people have lived here, with the keeper of the well charged with protecting it.”

Brukana gave a slow nod, then gazed at her water again. “And no one minds the flecks, it seems?”

The old woman shrugged. “Eh, a few of our people aren’t crazy about them, sure … but they know how life-giving the water is. Others focus on the sweetness of the water and just ignore the flecks. And still others wholly embrace the flecks right along with the sweetness, believing our water to be the truest, purest life-giving liquid in the land exactly the way it is—the way it must have been intended.”

“Interesting,” Brukana said.

Leaning closer to Brukana, the old woman gave a little smile and said, “Oh, but when the nearest tribes send traders or messengers to us, most of them won’t drink our water at all. They make sure they carry enough water skins to be able to drink their own water, since they feel it’s superior to our own dirty liquid with its impurities.”

“Really?” Brukana asked.

“Indeed they do, although some of them appreciate its distinctive taste and welcome it as something new to enjoy—but those are a very few. Most of them act as if our water is some kind of poison to be avoided.” She laughed. “And let me tell you that their own water isn’t exactly what I’d call the purest. Yet … as much as I cherish our water, to each their own, I say—given that the other tribes receive life from their own water, though such a philosophy isn’t held by all our people here.”

Brukana smiled. “Thank you for sharing this with me … and for telling me about the water of the other villages,” she said. “I am going to make a circuit of all the villages in these lands, so now I’m curious to see and taste the water of each one.”

“Heh, you have the blood of a true explorer in you: curious, courageous, and a dash of crazy, eh?”

Brukana and the old woman both laughed, as did the villagers sitting nearest them.

Three mornings later, Brukana bid her farewell to the tribe and journeyed on, having been told that the next village lay almost a full day’s walk away, almost directly westward along the clearly marked path used for traveling between tribes. In the early evening, she saw a fuchsia banner blowing in the mid distance, then heard the rustling of someone moving just up ahead. Moments later, a young male leapt out from behind a tree to her right, brandishing a long staff with one end blunt and the other pointed, likely thinking that he had caught Brukana unaware. She announced herself exactly as she had at the first village, and this seemed enough to allay the sentry’s caution, for he let the blunt end of his staff rest on the ground and then introduced himself, ending by welcoming her and then offering to take her into the village.

To be continued in Part 2 …