The savage summer heat rolled into a preview of autumn as Lifebringer and his retinue made their rounds, accompanied by their new arrival and his strange fascination. For his part, Storyteller had ample opportunities to make himself useful. Though lacking for medical knowledge, he proved capable at harvesting and cataloging plant specimens, an act that appealed to his nature. When there was no harvesting to be done, he found himself assigned a collection of other tasks by Lifebringer - toting equipment, ferrying messages around camp, disposing of unsuitable supplies, standing watch, or helping in the preparation of food. At times it seemed to Storyteller as if the healer was finding tasks merely to burden him, but it hardly bothered him as long as they continued northward.
When night fell, Storyteller moved on to a special task he had assigned to himself - reciting stories by the watchfire for the entertainment of the attendants and patients. This remained his true gift, and one appreciated by those who came to the firelight even if they had to drag themselves through the dust. For his growing reputation, though, the master healer never appeared at the nightly recitation. Lifebringer led a hermit's life even at rest, sitting in isolation as he checked his notes or took inventory. In time, Storyteller would learn that this was typical behavior - Lifebringer was simply not a man for frivolity.
Lifebringer only came to the fireside on one occasion - the final night Storyteller was with the retinue. It was an evening like any other, with a small group of attendants and patients gathered for the evening's tale. Storyteller had run low on stories that his usual audience had not yet heard, so he was speaking extemporaneously, taking assorted events from his own life, filling in the gaps with drama and threading the whole thing together with flourishes of fiction.
Storyteller was so lost in his duty that he didn't notice the healer approaching the firelight. "What is this?" said Lifebringer, the curiosity in his words tinged with suspicion.
All eyes turned to Lifebringer, some of the attendants slipping silently away from the fire. "Apologies, did I wake you?" said Storyteller.
"I couldn't sleep," said Lifebringer. "I'll ask again - what is this?"
"I was entertaining your group," said Storyteller, drawing to his feet. "My nightly ritual. I consider that as much a part of my job as my more practical duties."
"Do you?" Lifebringer approached the edge of the fire. As he did, his attendants stood up and stepped aside to give him room. "I'd like a word with Storyteller. Could you give us some time alone?" The remaining attendants and patients quietly fell back into the shadows, while Lifebringer took a seat on the ground next to Storyteller. "Sit down."
"Of course." Storyteller sat down next to Lifebringer. Though he was by no means a large man, his was an intimidating presence in many ways, and the dancing shadows formed by the firelight only magnified that. "I'm sorry if I woke you. You see, one day I told a story to one of your attendants, and I think she must have spread the word."
Lifebringer gazed into the heart of the fire. "Tell me, why did you choose to adopt this skill? Why not dedicate your life to something practical?"
"Does any man truly choose his own skill?"
"He chooses what skill he refines. You have chosen to refine a strange one." Lifebringer cast a sideways glance at Storyteller. "Where did the Storyteller come from?"
"Well, I suppose…yes, I became Storyteller when we were in the shelter. There were many of small children with us, terrified, and with good cause. Their parents were gone, they lacked the maturity to grasp what was happening to the world. So I started telling them stories, to calm their fears. Simple tales, of little interest to a sophisticated mind perhaps, but just what they needed." Storyteller turned to face Lifebringer. "So I guess that I don't consider it such an impractical skill. Must something bear directly on the physical world to have merit?"
"I fail to see your logic. But that fear...that is something I know all too well." Lifebringer stroked the pin on his collar. "I was only a child when it happened - seven, maybe eight. I can't really remember anymore. But I do remember books, books on the trades of the world before. I found an old guide on field medicine - must have been close to fifty years out of date, but there was plenty of valuable information inside." He hid his eyes beneath his hand. "I remember hearing that there was a tradition of medicine in my family. That and the pages of that guide are about the only things I can remember."
Storyteller tipped his head slightly. "There's never anything you miss quite as much, is there? My family certainly encouraged me to cultivate my talents, first my mother-"
"Please," said Lifebringer, waving his hand in Storyteller's face. "Don't act as though we're kindred spirits. Weeks on the road with you, and I still can't understand what makes you tick. And I don't think I could if I had a hundred years more."
"What's to understand?" said Storyteller.
Lifebringer stood up and began to pace around the fire. "I don't understand your demeanor. I don't understand how you can prance around, telling your little stories as though everything was fine. The world is a graveyard, and you treat it like a garden."
"I can understand your confusion," said Storyteller. "Perhaps I just have an eye for beauty."
"Beauty?" Lifebringer spoke the word as though it were going to choke him. "What beauty? You think this desolation is beautiful?"
"Beauty isn't where you are," said Storyteller. "It's all a matter of perspective. I think it's beautiful that people have survived thus far, and I think it's my duty to keep their spirits up while they rebuild. That beauty has to come from inside."
Lifebringer paused as he chewed on the notion. "That's not me anymore. Hasn't been since my first case out here."
"Tell me about it," said Storyteller, patting the ground next to him. "Tell me your story."
Lifebringer hesitated for a moment before answering with a clipped "Fine." He took a seat across from Storyteller, kneading his face as he began his account. "I hadn't been on the surface for too long, and I was in a settlement well southeast from here. I showed up just after Conqueror had passed through."
"Conqueror?" said Storyteller. "I'm not familiar with that individual."
Lifebringer laughed, the first time Storyteller had heard the sound - loud and brash, not fitting the healer. "How have you survived for this long?"
"I'm sorry," said Storyteller. "I have been gone for many years, and much has changed."
"In that case, this could well save your life," said Lifebringer. "His full title is Conqueror of the Southern Wastes, the undisputed ruler of the lower part of this territory. That desert used to swarm with brutal, murderous gangs, until Conqueror found a way to make it worse. He gathered those gangs into an army, killing the ones who wouldn't submit. Now he spends his days sitting in his fortified city, staring down at us all, sending the occasional force out to pillage and enslave. We're no more than cattle for him."
"Strange that I've never heard of him at all," said Storyteller. "I came from a shelter in the south. Why haven't I encountered this man?"
"You must have been lucky enough to leave before he took power. If you had not, you wouldn't have been allowed to leave. No one leaves." Lifebringer stared off into the wastes. "Anyone who enters his territory becomes his property. Anything he wants, he takes. Human beings not excepted."
"Then, you came to a settlement he had ruined?"
"Not quite." Lifebringer gritted his teeth, clearly struggling the pain of bad memories. "He was building his city at the time - he was ambitious, eager to prove that he could redeem the wasteland. For that he needed craftsman and his men were fetching them, through any means available. That day, he was seeking a stonecutter - just a boy, but he'd learned well from his mason father before the disaster. When the soldiers arrived, the boy's brother and some of the other people there didn't want to let him go. So the soldiers..." He hesitated for a moment. "...By the time I arrived, there wasn't much I could do for any of them. So don't talk to me about beauty, Storyteller. There's only suffering to be found here."
"I see. You've clearly witnessed more hardship and I." Storyteller shut his eyes, dipping back into his memories for a serene moment. "Oh, that I could grant you a glimpse of what I see."
"We see the same thing," said Lifebringer.
"That's where you're wrong," said Storyteller. "Another world entirely lurks behind these eyes."
Suddenly, one of the attendants ran up the path towards the two of them. "Lifebringer! I have news from our evening guard. Someone's watching the camp."
"Really? Someone's tailing us?" Lifebringer scanned the horizon, searching frantically for any trace of movement in the darkness. "How many did you see?"
"Four, maybe five," said the attendant. "They didn't try anything, they're just sitting at the edge of camp, staring in."
"Probably just outcasts or runaways, looking to steal food," said Lifebringer. "We can deal with this. Gather everyone in the center of camp, we'll scare them off with a show of strength."
Lifebringer and the attendant ran back towards the cluster of tents, Storyteller closely in tow. "I take it you've dealt with these types before?" said Storyteller.
"The smaller gangs are usually just petty thieves. Disorganized, inexperienced..." Lifebringer darted his head about as he ran, still looking for any sign of the raiders. "You treat them just like a wild animal - make yourself look big and they'll usually back off. The real risk this far north is the more organized groups."
"Is there any chance that these men are merely the scouts for a bigger group?" said Storyteller.
"Don't talk like that," said Lifebringer. "Just do as you're told."
The retinue was massed in the center of camp, forming an unbroken ring around the watchfire. They were hardly a lethal force, these slender medics waving whatever implements they could plausibly present as deadly weapons. Yet they were an intimidating sight all the same, what with the fire twisting their forms into weird and exaggerated shapes. Their presence surpassed their strength, granting an air of menace that must have been doubly potent to some group of desperate youths looking for easy victims.
"Storyteller, do you have a weapon?" yelled Lifebringer.
Storyteller look into his satchel. "I have a knife, but I'm not sure that I'm comfortable-"
"What did I tell you? Do as you're told." Lifebringer produced a utility knife which he normally used for surgery. Though it was small in size, the dried blood made it an effective tool of intimidation. " We're probably not going to need to fight, just wave whatever you have in that air. I told you, this is about a show of strength."
"...Probably?" Ignoring his trepidation, Storyteller drew the knife. He hadn't bothered to look at it since finding it in the embattled settlement weeks before. It was actually a fine piece - lacquered oaken grip, animal horn hand guard, ornate symbols etched into the high-grade steel of the blade. Once upon a time, such a knife would have fetched a handsome price, valued for its artistic value as much as its practical use. In the new world it was little more than a shard of metal with a keen edge, no better or worse than any blade of similar size.
Gripping the knife, Storyteller peered up into the darkness. For the first time, he could see the aggressors, standing just at the edge of the firelight. There were four of them, not one of whom was more than seventeen. Each one was standing in what he took for an intimidating pose, showing off a sharpened gardening tool or a club made from the leg of a desk. Storyteller could recognize the absurdity in asking about organized violence. They were less a gang of seasoned killers than some sorry pack of boys looking to prove their worth through blind destruction.
"This is the deciding point," said Lifebringer, his knife pointed at one of the thugs. "They're trying to get us to break. Once they see that it won't happen, they'll run off and look for easier prey."
Time slowed to a crawl as the two groups stared each other down. Activity came in fits - one of the raiders drawing near the camp with an aggressive gesture, an attendant backing off as he struggled to keep his nerves intact - and only after drawn-out minutes of tortured silence. At length, though, the raiders wavered. One by one they withdrew from the edge of the camp just as Lifebringer had predicted, waving their armaments at the camp in a sorry attempt to save face before making a hasty retreat into the night.
Then there was a surge of movement, a kinetic flash that was at once fast and slow. The last of the raiders - bolder than the rest, or perhaps just more desperate - charged out of the darkness, swinging his crude blade with wild abandon. Storyteller dived out of the way, barely avoiding the attack, but Lifebringer was not so lucky. The blade sliced through Lifebringer's bicep, painting the sandy soil beneath him with a fine crimson coat. A moment later, the two men collided, falling to the ground in a pile. The raider quickly scrambled to his feet, one foot on Lifebringer's back, brandishing his bloody knife.
"Whatever you're carrying, assholes!" screamed the raider, waving his blade at Lifebringer. "Bring it here where I can see it, or I kill your friend and then start in on the rest of you!"
"We don't have anything," said Lifebringer. "We're healers, not traders."
"Don't lie!" The raider's eyes darted around the camp, noting the attendants and their meager belongings. He pressed his hands to his forehead. "Oh, man, you're telling the truth?" He quickly raised his knife, cutting narrow arcs in the air. "Well, I don't care. I still have this guy, and I'll kill him if you try anything. Clear?"
Storyteller tried to size up the raider, if such a grandiose term could even apply. The boy had obviously not yet seen his sixteenth birthday. He was morbidly thin, bones and veins standing out against his sallow flesh. This was no cutthroat but an outcast ill-treated by the wastes.
Storyteller stood up, taking a single cautious step towards the two of them. "Young man, there's no need to kill anyone today."
The raider pointed his blade at Storyteller, a terrified gleam in his eye. "The hell do you know?"
"More than you think." Storyteller set his knife on the ground. "See? I am no threat to you."
"What are you doing?" grunted Lifebringer from underneath the raider's boot.
"Both of you shut up! I can't hear myself think!" The raider rubbed his temples with his free hand. "You don't know anything. You don't know what I've seen."
"True, but I do know that you are new to this world," said Storyteller. "You're only a boy."
"Boy?" The raider gestured with his knife towards Lifebringer. "Why don't I just kill him, huh? Could a boy do that, huh?"
"It doesn't take a man to kill." Storyteller took another step towards the raider, hands raised and palms open. "You came from a settlement near here, didn't you?"
"What if I did?" There was a slight trembling in the raider's hand, a relaxing of his posture.
"Please." Storyteller slowly lowered his hands to his waist. "Why did you leave?"
"Respect." The raider lowered his knife an inch. "You think I got any from those assholes in the settlement? Those people worked me like a damn slave. I had to do whatever they told me. Not anymore."
"What did they want you to do?" said Storyteller.
The raider gnawed at his fingernails. "They wanted me to carry things around. Take things to the craftsman. No one cared what I did. It didn't matter."
"You wanted to feel important. I can understand that." Storyteller edged closer. "But your pride can hurt you, too. Didn't anyone ever tell you the fable of the Rooster and the Eagle? The boastful rooster was killed and eaten by the eagle. His pride led to his destruction. Where has your pride led you?" He pointed at the raider. "Look at you. You're dying."
"I'm doing fine!" There was mist in the raider's eyes. "I don't need them!"
"Look at yourself," said Storyteller. "Look at your friends. You have to see that you need someone's help, you won't survive on your own. What future lies ahead of you?"
"What future? I don't have one anymore, no one does. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters." The raider was on the verge of tears. "I might as well kill him. It doesn't matter."
"You're not a killer," said Storyteller. "An evil man will always find a pretext for his deeds, but a decent man needs only his conscience. Now won't you put away your weapon?"
The raider lowered his knife to his waist. "What am I supposed to do? Go back? Beg them to take me in? I won't do it! I'll die first!"
"There are many things you can do," said Storyteller, walking towards the raider. "You can live here, or even work with the group. But you always, always have a choice. You can always-"
Storyteller hadn’t the time to finish his sentiment before the raider fled into the darkness, leaving his knife in the settling dust in his wake. The attendants wasted no time, sprinting to the aid of their leader without as much as a furtive glance to check for some fresh ambush. Lifebringer waved them away, though, scrutinizing his own wound as though it had been delivered to another. If he felt the pain, he did not acknowledge it.
"It's not that bad." said Lifebringer, eyeing the laceration. "Bring a bandage, I can bind it myself."
An attendant fetched Lifebringer's bag and set it down next to him. "That was really clever," she said to Storyteller. "You've done this before, haven't you?"
"It's not the first dangerous situation I've escaped with words," said Storyteller. "They're the only weapon I possess."
Lifebringer deftly bound the wound with his one free hand. "It was a silly risk. How could you have known what that man was going to do?" He sighed in resignation. "That was ungrateful of me. Whatever I think, what you did worked. Thank you."
Storyteller smiled and nodded in boyish fashion. "Not necessary. I was just paying you back for being my guide. I'm sure that your group has saved my life many times over."
Lifebringer climbed to his feet. "Speaking of which, your time with us is coming to an end. Nexus is a half-day's travel north of here. I hope you find what you lost."
"Thank you for your good wishes," said Storyteller. "I don't know what I would do if I lost that notebook for good."
The whisper of a smile on Lifebringer's face swiftly changed to a scowl. "Excuse me? What was it that you lost?"
"My notebook," said Storyteller. "I've had it since I went into the bomb shelter. For years, I've been spinning a tale of the old world. It's-"
Lifebringer's hand flew through the air, striking Storyteller across his left cheek. "Imbecile! You would risk your life for such a worthless trinket?"
"It's hardly worthless," said Storyteller, rubbing his face. "I have been working in that book for years, its contents are as valuable as the very air. It's irreplaceable."
"And that's worth getting killed?" said Lifebringer, wagging his finger at Storyteller. "What if you'd been wrong about that raider? What if he'd panicked and lunged for you? You'd be lying there dead over a bunch of paper and wire!"
"But it's not-"
"No more excuses," said Lifebringer. "It's time for you to wake up to reality. This isn't the old world. It isn't a civilized world. There's no place for sentimentality anymore."
"I'm...sorry." Storyteller swallowed hard. "The sun will soon be up...I'll just be going."
Storyteller quietly turned and marched down the road, all eyes tracing him as he departed. Lifebringer stared as well - Storyteller could almost feel the healer's contemptuous glare at his back, following him into the horizon longer than the eyes of the others. The sun was breaking to his side, throwing purple-tinted light onto the guidestones leading him toward his destination, but for a while his wounded ego directed his thoughts back to the camp. There was much to do, but the endless time on the trail always led his thoughts back to the trivial and personal. With luck, he would receive a respite with the recovery of his most valuable possession.