The blank page spitefully returned Storyteller's gaze. There were few like it remaining in the notebook, just enough left for a conclusion that stubbornly eluded him. Ideas had come and gone, but he dared not ruin a page with poorly considered words, not when clean pages were so hard to come by. Thus the final story remained unfinished, one more goal lying in some distant land.
Of course, a wanderer had little time to think about future goals when more immediate necessities were ahead. At least potable water was abundant - many were the watering holes along the road, even if some had gained notoriety as traps stalked by wasteland brutes. Food was a greater challenge. A skilled trapper might snare a small rodent here, but the big game had left long ago and the vegetation was hardly enough to support even a single man. Survival required knowledge and preparation, and the line between endurance and death was easily crossed.
All of these things weighed on Storyteller's mind as he pondered his destination. Fate was steering him north, to the safety of well-trafficked lands, but his destination had always been in the south. The risk of wandering heedlessly was too great here. And so he sat on a flat stone at some long-forgotten crossroad, gazing north up the path, then back to the south, then northward again as he planned his path.
He was so focused on his plans and his notebook that he failed to notice a new arrival drawing near. The snap of a dry twig pulled him back to reality.
"Oh!" Storyteller bolted upright and spun in the direction of the sound. Here was a short, scraggly-looking man carrying an overstuffed duffel bag and brandishing a stout oak branch. "Pardon me, sir. I didn't see you there."
The man eyeballed Storyteller for several long, silent seconds. "S'all right," he muttered.
"Thank you," said Storyteller, returning to his seat on the stone. "You're the first soul I've seen come up this path, you know."
"Perhaps you can help me make a decision," said Storyteller. "I'd like to head south, but every soul I meet points me north. Tell me, where were you before now?"
The man shrugged, not breaking his stare. "Dunno. Just followed the trail."
"I see. Well, thank you anyway." Storyteller returned to the pages of his notebook.
The man sat down across from Storyteller, clutching his belongings tightly against his body. "What you got there?"
"Just a personal project of mine. Something I've been working on for many years. Whenever I have nothing to do, I like to review what I've already done."
"Personal...project?" The man spoke the phrase as though it had been pulled from some lost language.
"Yes, something I work on when I have a moment alone. I know that some people might think it foolish, but it gives me a sense of purpose." Storyteller closed the notebook. "Well, I suppose it's time to make a decision as to my next destination. I wish you well on your journey."
As he returned the notebook to his satchel, Storyteller felt something grab hold of his arm. It was the scraggly man, straining to wrench the notebook free from Storyteller's hand. "What are you doing? Stop!" Storyteller seized the notebook with both hands, fighting off the would-be thief with both hands. The man swung at Storyteller with the oak branch, narrowly missing his head. Storyteller fell back onto the rock and his attacker ran off into the scrub.
"Wait! Stop!" A moment later, Storyteller was on his feet, satchel slung over one arm, pursuing the thief. The man was fast, far quicker than his diminutive stature would suggest. Nevertheless, Storyteller kept pace, shrugging off the brambles that tore at his clothing and skin. The thief sprinted up a hill, taking one glimpse back at Storyteller before charging down the other side. Storyteller's lungs burned from the exertion, but he ran through the pain and scrambled up the side of the hill. As he reached the crest, his foot caught on an unseen rock and he fell hard, tumbling down through a mess of anemic bushes and stones before coming to an jarring halt at the base of a large fragment of concrete. The air rushed from his lungs in a single agonizing burst, sending dark spots dancing across the sky.
Mustering as much strength as he could, Storyteller pulled himself into a sitting position. The thief was long gone, leaving not even a trace of his flight. Storyteller reached for his satchel, checking to see that none of his other belongings had been lost or destroyed in the fall. As his hand found the strap, a wave of pain raced through his left arm and up his shoulder. Storyteller pulled back his sleeve to reveal a large purple bruise, a reminder of his rough landing.
Regaining his orientation, Storyteller found that fate had at least seen fit to deposit him at the threshold of an encampment.It was an impressive one, at that - far larger than those he had encountered in the previous months, surrounded by a sturdy wooden fence with a watch platform overlooking the gate. It was a crossroads, a minor trading village linking several other nearby settlements. Even from Storyteller's distant vantage point, he could spot ample activity, the constant motion of travelers moving in and out, petty traders carrying bags or dragging sleds loaded down with redeemed goods.
Rubbing his sore arm, Storyteller gathered his belongings and set off for the settlement. As he neared the gate, the man on the watch platform called out to him. "What's your intention here, traveler? Are you here for treatment?"
"Treatment?" said Storyteller. "I am in no need of treatment."
"Are you positive, traveler? It's a rare opportunity."
"Merely passing through, friend."
"All right," said the man. "You may come in. Just don't disturb any of the patients."
Storyteller pondered that word "patients" as he crossed through the gate, when his eyes found an unexpected sight. The center of town was filled with people, not traders nor redeemers nor explorers. Most of them had the look of ordinary wasteland survivors, drawn from reaches far and wide. All of them were in grim shape, either nursing injuries or suffering the pains of disease. A small group of able-bodied people moved through the crowd, stopping to give aid to the others.
Storyteller noticed a woman watching the activity. "Excuse me, what's going on here?" he said.
"Lifebringer is here," said the woman.
"Had a different name for people like him once, but Lifebringer is the only proper thing to call him now."
"Then I take it this man is a healer of some sort?"
"Don't act daft," said the woman. "It won't get you to the front of the line any faster. You'd better find a place if you want his help. He's getting busier all the time, you know."
A crimson-haired woman took notice of Storyteller. "Excuse me, sir, are you in need of help?"
"Oh no, you needn't bother with me," said Storyteller, cradling his arm. "I'm quite all right."
"Please sir." The woman jogged through the crowd to Storyteller's side. "You are rubbing your arm. Are you sure you're fine?"
"Just a bruise," said Storyteller. "I had a bit of a fall earlier, but I'm sure it's not serious."
"Let me take a quick look anyway, all right?" She led Storyteller over to a log and gestured for him to sit down.
"If you insist." Storyteller rolled up his sleeve. "You're not Lifebringer, I take it? Sorry for my ignorance, I've been away for many years."
"No, merely an attendant. You can call me that if you like. We all share the title."
"Isn't that confusing?" said Storyteller.
"Not when it comes to Lifebringer. When he calls for one of us, any will do." Attendant studied the bruise, lightly brushing her calloused fingertips over the skin. "You're right, it's not too serious. Even so, I have a treatment that might help it heal faster."
"I've had far worse," said Storyteller. "The price of a life on the trail. There's no need to waste medicine on me."
"Well, would you be interested in helping us test something?" Attendant reached into a nearby bag and pulled out a bandage, heavy and dripping with some sort of pungent-smelling fluid. "There's this poultice we use for traumatic wounds, but the herb is rather rare. So we're testing this new compound, made from ingredients that are easy to find."
"Very well," said Storyteller. "I'm always interested in advancing the cause of medicine."
Attendant loosely bound the bandage around Storyteller's injured arm. "The medicine will absorb through your skin. You should be feeling the effects very soon."
Storyteller studied his hand. "Is it supposed to make my arm numb?"
"Uh oh. One second, please." Attendant stood up and scanned the clearing. "Lifebringer? May I see you for a moment?"
Somewhere in the crowd, a man rose and glanced in Attendant's direction. He was young, scarcely twenty years of age if that, yet he had the presence and the world-weary look of a man twice as old. His frame was concealed by a long coat, colorless save for the dust at the hem and rust-colored streaks at the sleeves. A decaying leather bag, bulging until it threatened to spill forth at the seams, swung heavily from his shoulder. His drained visage was brightened by a single glimmer at his collar - a lapel pin of well-tarnished silver in the shape of the Rod of Asclepius.
"What's the issue, Attendant?" he said, striding over to the two of them. "This patient doesn't appear to be in very bad shape. We've discussed triage, remember?"
"It's not the patient," said Attendant. "I just tried out Compound B-08 on this man, and he had an unexpected reaction. His arm's gone numb."
"Truly?" Lifebringer knelt down beside Storyteller, taking hold of his wrist. "Describe what you're feeling exactly, and please tell me in detail. What parts of your body have lost feeling?"
"Everything from my hand up through my shoulder," said Storyteller.
Lifebringer removed a small metal probe from his pocket and pressed it firmly into Storyteller's palm. "Can you feel this at all?"
"I feel a little bit of pressure. Actually..." Storyteller straightened out his arm and wiggled his fingers. "I can feel it once more."
"Too bad. I guess this won't work as a replacement," said Attendant.
"No, but it may have other applications." Lifebringer removed a ragged notebook and a stump of a pencil from his bag. "If we can find a way to prolong the effect, then we have the makings of a topical anesthetic. We can certainly make use of that." He made a brief notation on one of the pages, then tucked the notebook back into his bag. "What was the original complaint?"
"Just a fall," said Storyteller. "A mere bruise."
Lifebringer studied the mark. "It will heal on its own. It's unlikely that you'll experience any lasting effects."
"How did it happen, anyway?" said Attendant. "I guess I was so eager to try the new compound that I forgot to ask."
Storyteller rolled his sleeve down. "It was a chance encounter with a thief. He took something very precious to me, and I fell down a hill while I was chasing him. I don't suppose you saw anyone run past the settlement recently?"
"I've been far too busy to look," said Lifebringer, eyes locked on his bag as he sorted the contents. "I will say that if what he stole was rare at all, then he's probably headed to Nexus. The Baron's Market is about the only place where one can find a buyer for things of that nature."
"Nexus..." Storyteller stroked his chin. "Yes, I've heard that name mentioned. Perhaps I'll head there in the morning."
"Not a wise decision," said Lifebringer. "Raiders have been active on those roads. Going north alone is nothing short of suicide."
"I don't suppose you are headed in that direction?" said Storyteller.
"We never go into Nexus, but we will stop at the nearest settlement. You can come with us..." Attendant's eyes drifted hesitantly to Lifebringer "...Sorry, sir, I shouldn't have presumed."
"Hmm." Lifebringer picked up his bag and climbed to his feet. "We do occasionally bring people with us, if they can give us aid. What do they call you?"
"I did forget to introduce myself. I am known as Storyteller."
Lifebringer furrowed his brow. "I don't suppose you have any experience treating injuries?"
"Unfortunately, my experience is minimal," said Storyteller. "But I have learned a few things from the trail medics I've known over the years."
Lifebringer stifled a sigh, though the frustration was clear in his gaze. "We may have some limited use for you. I can't make you an attendant, but you can still take care of certain duties. You will gather and store medicinal plants, prepare them for use in compounds, deliver messages, and assist the attendants should they need you. You will do exactly and only as I direct you to do. In return, we will ensure that you reach Nexus alive. Do we have a deal?"
Storyteller extended his hand. "We have a deal."
Lifebringer stared quizzically at Storyteller's outstretched hand. "We will be moving among the encampments in the area, so it will take longer than normal. Two weeks, most likely." He extended his hand, imitating Storyteller's gesture. "Welcome to our family."
Storyteller grasped Lifebringer's hand. "I will do anything that I can."
"The attendants will tell you what's needed," said Lifebringer. "Understand, this is not a typical arrangement for us. I trust that you'll live up to your end." With that, he turned and headed to his next patient.
"He's a bit short with strangers," said Attendant. "Don't mind him. He's really an exceptional man."
"I have no doubt," said Storyteller. "It is the privilege of exceptional minds to carry eccentricities, after all."