A Short Story

A short walk later, Brukana again found herself at the center of a village near a well, this one compassed about by a wooden wall and likewise covered by a wooden roof—with the attached flagpole brandishing the vivid fuchsia banner she’d seen just a bit ago. As with the previous settlement, these villagers also bid her welcome, but most of them seemed guarded, although a few did greet her with warm smiles and the offer of food and drink. As before, Brukana sat with the villagers for the evening meal around a fire and close to the well, with not nearly as much talk and laughter here, clearly because of the stranger in their midst.

At the tribal council’s request, though, Brukana did share the brief story of her journey thus far. After she’d told of being at the seaward village to the east and their sweet water, she sensed mostly disdain from these people, although she did spy a few who gazed down at the ground, trying to hide the smiles that had formed on their lips. Brukana even caught one young male peeking up and offering her a sheepish grin before casting his eyes back to the soil.

In the thick silence that followed, Brukana held up the dark wooden cup she’d been drinking from and said, “Your water tastes wonderful. A unique flavor—a hint of spicy herb … jaxweed, perhaps?” she ventured, recalling a tidbit of information she’d learned in preparation for her journey.

One of the council—a middle-aged male—smiled. “Ah, you have a discerning palate.” He nodded. “Yes, it is indeed jaxweed.”

After taking another sip and swishing it around in her mouth before swallowing, Brukana looked at the councilman and said, “And the little fragments that tickle my tongue? … Not the remains of stinger-flies, are they?”

In reply, several villagers scoffed or whispered to each other. A handful chuckled, though—the councilman among them.

He again smiled at Brukana, shaking his head. “No, no. Nothing like that, I assure you. Those are actually small bits of the jaxweed itself. The darkness of your cup hides the pinkish color of the water.”

“Really?” Brukana asked.

The councilman nodded.

Being among the ring of people closest to the fire, Brukana leaned forward, then dribbled a trickle of water from the cup into the palm of her free hand. Squinting at the liquid, she smiled. “Yes, I see a little pink, along with some flecks of jaxweed. Amazing! And do you add the jaxweed to flavor the water?”

“No, no,” said a younger woman on the council as she leaned forward to look at Brukana. “It comes up from the well like that. Generations of our tribe have searched for the headwaters of whatever subterranean stream brings us our water, hoping to discover the secret of our special water, but none have ever found it, and nary a one has ever ascended beyond midway up the mountain because of the bitter cold and blizzards there.”

Brukana gave a slow nod as she gazed down into her cup.

“But I suspect you’ve already heard a similar story from the last village, eh?” the young councilwoman asked, winking at Brukana.

“Yes … yes, I have,” Brukana answered, then stared at the woman. “And here among your tribe, does everyone enjoy the jaxweed in the water?”

“No … they do not all like the presence of the jaxweed flecks,” the councilwoman said. “They like the spice it brings to the water, but not the actual particles, and so some strain out what they can before drinking it. Others here, though, feel the water is perfect, for nature has brought it to us like this.”

“And neighboring tribals who come here—how do they like it?” Brukana asked.

The councilwoman eyed Brukana for a moment, a smile playing at her lips, and then she dipped her head in a small bow. “Respect to you, wise one.”

Brukana offered a nod.

“Most of them refuse it, seeing it as unclean,” the woman answered. “A few enjoy it, thankful for such a diverse flavor—perhaps a change from their own unclean water with its various oddities. But … eh, different people, different tastes, I believe … even if I am in the minority of my own people with such a viewpoint.”

Now Brukana eyed the councilwoman and nodded to her. “You are wise, young one.”

The woman put a hand on her chest as she said, “My thanks.”

The evening gathering continued long into darkness, and Brukana stayed with the tribe for two more nights. Early the next morning, the council and many of the villagers saw her off, with the young councilwoman letting Brukana know that the next village lay only about a half-day’s walk away to the north-northwest along the main path. After again offering her thanks for the tribe’s kindness, Brukana struck off under a purplish sky.

After taking her time along the trail, Brukana crested a grassy hillock and saw a long rectangular flag flapping in the distance, this banner looking a bit like the night sky in reverse: a bright white background dotted with varying sizes of black specks. From that point, Brukana’s time with this tribe generally mirrored her previous two village visits: a friendly enough welcome, sharing a meal near the well that sat beneath the large flag, and, of course, a conversation about the tribe’s water. Their own “life-giving liquid” looked uncolored, but it did feature plenty of gritty ebony granules, with Brukana learning that these particles gave the water its slightly metallic tang, which she found quite tasty on her tongue, even crunching some of the bits and letting their flavor burst forth in her mouth.

“Sedimentary minerals,” offered one of the tribal elders, whose appearance leaned more toward the male side. “They no doubt come to our well from headwaters somewhere high up in the mountains, far beyond anywhere our people have been able to explore. Sadly, many from other tribes in the south region scoff at our ‘crunchy water.’”

From there, of course, talk turned to other tribes and their impure—or, at the very least, unpleasant—water. Again, though, some of villagers seemed turned off by such talk.

Brukana spent only one full day there before heading westward again the following morning, journeying into the twilight of evening before spotting a triangular crimson pennant wafting in the warm breeze. She expected and then experienced the same pattern as had happened in the previous three villages, this time with the well water being a dark red, and she had no problem understanding why most visitors from other tribes shunned drinking liquid that looked to them like fresh blood. Brukana, though, had to openly admit that the water not only revived her but also tasted delectable with its fruity flavor, then listened as members of the leadership circle told of various myths that explained the coloration and how nothing had ever been proven because—no surprise to Brukana—the headwaters in the giant massif could not be reached.

The next afternoon, the villagers bid Brukana farewell, sending her on her way with precise directions to the next village, which she reached before nightfall. This time, she saw a hazel flag in the distance, followed by meeting villagers who drank from a well with murky brown water that the other tribes by and large refused to drink. Again, though, Brukana found it refreshing and full of a briny flavor, even as the village quorum told of the clay flakes that swirled in their water and had an unknown origin somewhere high in the mountains.

Two mornings hence, Brukana departed, once again with instructions on making it to the next village to the west. But she had seen enough—more than enough. After trekking out of the forest and into something of a prairie land, Brukana stopped and reached down to the shoulder bag slung across her body. She touched what appeared to be a decorative gemstone that glistened orange like fire, letting the tip of her finger rest there as she gazed up at the mammoth mountain to the north.

To be continued in Part 3 …