Quixotic

Prologue

The village was nestled in a large, elevated clearing near the coast of the Abalon Sea. The clearing encompassed most a bluff that jutted out into a small peninsula so that it was predominately bordered by ledges and then a long strip of beach. The climate was tropical, but the location allowed breezes to make living there pleasant year-round. Most of the residents resided on a series of semi-circular roads lined with lodges that bordered the small market that served the village. Next to the market was what passed for a village square that led to the Chieftain’s lodge opposite the rest. Outside of the village there were a few farming homesteads, although they were still close enough to be in view and all along the small road that ran through the center and ended not far past the tree line. It was a place of simple existence and no name.  As far as anyone remembered there had never been a single outsider in their small corner of the world.

One day that changed.

Mikos was a hunter and a gatherer. One of the few. The village predominately relied on their meager agriculture and, to a lesser extent, fishing for sustenance. Isolation had done nothing to prevent a strong xenophobic paranoia in his people. So only a very select number were granted the privilege of supplementing food and supplies by venturing away from the clearing by any distance of note. Mikos and his friend and fellow hunter, Sato, had left the village that morning in search of game. They were about a mile from home in thick but familiar jungle, approaching a slope that led down to a small stream. It was the only fresh water source in the vicinity which made it a favorite hunting ground. They had stopped at the top of the slope to survey the area when they heard it. A small child crying.

Sato locked eyes with Mikos as their blood ran cold. That was a sound that was never heard out of earshot of the village. No villager would have ventured out this far and even if they had, Mikos or Sato would have seen the signs as they had come via the most direct route to this spot. An outsider. A stranger. Someone… else. It was not hard to determine that the sound was coming from the stream. At first, neither of them wanted to move. Both thought of creeping back to the village and raising the alarm. But by silent agreement Mikos convinced his friend that they needed to creep down and get a look at who was so close to their far-flung home. By the sound this child was too small to be out here alone. That meant others, and others changed everything.

They crept down the slope as fast as possible without making any noise, the primitive bows they had brought to hunt with held at the ready. Their nerves were burning and their muscles were as taut as the lines of the fishermen when their nets were full. For all their caution, however, their attention was focused on the source of the noise rather than their footing. Sato misstepped on a tree root. His ankle twisted and he lost his balance. Suddenly he was tumbling down the slope. He maintained the presence of mind to toss his bow away from him so his fall would not inadvertently discharge it. This proved prudent as a second later his trajectory had his right thigh connect with a broken branch. If the commotion had not already given them away, Sato’s involuntary cry of pain definitely did.

Mikos followed Sato down the slope trying to at least maintain his stealthiness. One man was compromised, but whoever was at the stream didn’t need to know that he was not alone. He hid behind a large tree that provided him a safe place to survey Sato’s stopping point and the stream beyond. Sato was clutching the jagged piece of wood protruding from his leg. He was bleeding profusely and clearly in agony, but his attention was locked on the far bank of the stream. Mikos followed his gaze.

There, sitting on a rock, was a woman holding the crying toddler. She was advanced in years but not truly old. Her gray hair was tied back in a bun and her garb was a robe that covered all but her head and hands. It was made of a fabric woven by a much more refined technique than their village was capable of and a purple color but faded, worn, and dirty. A satchel of similar weave hung at her waist by a shoulder strap that crossed her torso. She was holding some kind of plant root to the child’s mouth and it appeared to Mikos that she had been trying to feed it to him when she had been interrupted by Sato’s fall. Although she was no doubt surprised by the sudden appearance of the wounded man, she gave no impression that she was as bemused to see another human as they were. They were both nervous if not outright frightened. The woman was neither.

She said something to Sato in a tongue that was completely foreign to them. The sound of her voice was surreal to Mikos, and he didn’t have a hope of understanding what she had said. The same was true for Sato.

“What?” he asked her with trepidation. She barely hesitated and switched languages effortlessly.

“Ah, so this is your language. Very well, hello then. What is your name?” she asked. Sato just continued staring at her.

“Well, come on. Speak. I asked your name.”

As unnerved as they were, the woman spoke with an authority that seemed to trigger compliance, like she suffered no fools and hearing it automatically inclined you to understand it was best to do what she said. It was akin to the elder widows of the village who taught traditions and tasks to the village children too young to start work, yet more potent.

“Sa… Sato. I am Sato.” he said.

“Sato. Good. Sato, I am Marsury.” she replied, “And that leg of yours needs attending.”

The woman, Marsury, stood in a smooth motion and proceeding to ford the shallow stream with the child still in her arms. Sato’s eyes widened in shock and terror and he made to scramble away but pain brought him to a halt. Mikos had no such injury and sprang into motion. Clearing the final distance in seconds he appeared behind Sato, training his bow at the strange woman though doing his best to avoid aiming at the little boy. “Stay away! Don’t come any closer!”

Marsury was even less surprised, and unimpressed, with the appearance of the second man. She paid little attention to the weapon, gave a sound of annoyance, and continued out of the stream although she did stop there. “Listen. Your friend needs care. He’s not going to make it back to wherever you came from as he is. Just what exactly do you think I’m going to do that you’re so threatened?”

Mikos did not respond, but his bow lowered slightly. There was the tone that just inspired obedience again. “Now put that thing down before you hurt someone. Especially my boy here.”

He complied and she closed the distance to them.

“And you. What is your name?” she asked.

“Mikos.” he replied.

“Good. I trust you already heard mine. Now here. Make yourself useful.” and with no further preamble she thrust the child into Mikos’s arms. He had not held a small child since he had been a youth himself with his newborn sister. He had only recently been wed to a young woman who had lived four houses away from him and they had yet to produce offspring. The feeling was unpleasant for him, at once vulnerable and responsible for the safekeeping of one so fragile. But he dared not stop holding the toddler.

“And try to get him to chew on this.” She said holding the root to Mikos, which he took. She then pulled an identical one from her satchel and turned to Sato. Sato eyed the new one and then the one in Mikos’s hand as he held it up to the boy’s lips. He was no less nervous.

“What is that?” Sato asked.

“Canus root.” Marsury said, “Dulls the pain. My boy is currently teething.”

Mikos looked and, sure enough, there were the nubs of the boy’s first teeth coming through. No wonder he was miserable.

“For you,” she started saying to Sato, “I need you to chew this one into a pulp. It’s not the most pleasant flavor and it will make your mouth go numb for the next hour or two, but you’ll be fine. When you’re done you will spit it into your hand.”

Still hesitantly, Sato did as she said and she was right on both counts. He spit out the mush. She knelt down in front of him to eye level and pointed at him.

“Now, I want you to listen to me very carefully.” Marsury said.

Sato began slowly nodding his head to indicate he was listening but no sooner had he started and was focused on her face that in one quick motion Marsury grabbed the branch and yanked it out.  The was a fresh spurt of blood and a loud yelp from Sato. Without even thinking he brought the hand holding the chewed-up root down on the wound. The numbing effect was quick.

“Good,” she said, “Now keep holding it and press down to help with the bleeding.”

The woman rooted around into her satchel again until she produced a small knife and a coiled wrap of white linen. The sight of both of them shocked Mikos and Sato. They  were familar with binding and bandaging wounds, but never had they seen such a clean white color anywhere other than clouds. The knife was not made of stone like any of the sharpened implements they had seen. It gleamed like moonlight on the face of the sea. As Marsury cut a length of the linen she noticed their rapt attention on her knife. She held it up to show it to them.

“I take it no one where you are from is familiar with metal. This knife is made from a material called steel.”

She bound Sato’s leg with practiced efficiency, leaving the root pulp against the wound. Then she stood and walked back to Mikos, gesturing to have the child returned to her arms. Mikos handed him over, still in almost trancelike obedience despite his unease.

“You should go find a tree limb that will make a suitable crutch for your friend.” she said to him. Mikos turned to do so and it did not take him long to find one that would do. He was nervous to go far but some calm notion inside him reasoned that she would not do all she had done only to harm either of them now. When Mikos returned he helped Sato to his feet and made sure he could move. Sato had discomfort but the root and bandage were obviously working. No doubt he would have been unable to stand otherwise. Mikos was holding both bows while Sato held his shoulder in one hand and his makeshift crutch in the other.

“Alright then, let’s get to your village. It will be slow going and we want to be there before dark.” Marsury stated matter of factly. Mikos and Sato simultaneously felt a lurch in their guts. The idea of this woman returning with them had not occured to them.

“You can’t!” Mikos blurted before he caught himself, torn between fear of angering this strange woman and angering the entire village.

“I don’t see why not. I have no intention of staying out here in the wildnerness alone with my boy any longer than necessary.”

“No one ever comes to the village.” He tried to sound insistent, not that it mattered.

“There’s a first time for everything.” She replied almost dismissively. “Besides, your friend might need more help along the way.”

Mikos was trapped and he knew it. There was no choice, and she still had that demanding presence that seemingly could not be refused. Presently, they set off toward the village, taking a slight detour to a less steep incline for Sato to make his way up.

Mikos led the way as he assisted his friend. Marsury followed at a casual distance, cooing to the child as his cries slowly quieted. Apparently, she had achieved a measure of success getting the painkilling root on his gums. During the walk, Mikos and Sato would exchange worried glances, silently expressing the same concern to each other. The two young men needed a rest about halfway to the village. They took a short break during which Marsury produced a waterskin from the folds of her robe and shared it with them. Any concern they had about drinking from it was overridden by their fatigue and thirst in the tropical midday heat.

After they all had a drink, including the boy, Marsury walked a short distance away to sit on a rock. They watched her intently as she softly sang to the child in a strange tongue. The sound was enchanting despite its alien nature. Sato spoke first, in a low voice.

“What are we going to do?”

“What can we do?” Mikos replied.

“I don’t know. I’m afraid of how everyone is going to respond. I’ve never heard of anyone from outside. Have you?”

“No. Not even in all the stories of my grandmother. There has never been anyone but us.”

“This is going to be bad, and we’re going to be blamed.” Sato said after a contemplative pause.

“Yes, but again, I don’t see anything we can do about it. You can’t run and I’m not about to leave you. We’re close enough to home now that it isn’t difficult to find anyway.”

With that, Marsury stood up and returned to them. “Alright, that’s enough rest. Let’s get going.”

****

It was not long before the edge of the jungle came into view. Mikos’s trepidation rose as he sighted the rough end of the road yet he continued towards it. As the small group entered the clearing he began watching the hut of the outermost farmstead. it belonged to a man named Vanmos. He was as close a friend and confidant to the chieftain as anyone could claim as his home’s location made him the de facto watch for the entire village. It was a responsibility he took very seriously as it secured his status in their community. He also had the largest plot of farmland and the largest family of anyone in the village with six children. Mikos could see that all but the youngest and his wife, both by the door of the hut, were out working in their field.

Vanmos’s oldest, a boy in his teens named Tannin, was the first to notice them. He stood straight and looked towards them holding his hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun. Mikos, Sato, and Marsury were now close enough that Mikos could see Tannin’s eyes grow wide and an alarmed expression form on his face. The boy called out to his father. The entire family rushed to Tannin’s side and they all had the same look. Vanmos hurriedly told Tannin to run to the village and alert them.

Presently, they made it to the family looking at the three of them with nothing short of horror, especially the woman and child. Mikos and Sato looked back at them bearing expressions of conciliatory pleading. The only one who didn’t seem bothered at all was Marsury. She looked almost bored. In fact, she stopped with them only briefly before giving a small nod of greeting and then continuing past Mikos and Sato. After all, they were now on the road and the village itself was in sight so a guide was no longer required. Vanmos and his family were too shocked to say anything. Mikos shrugged in uncertainty of what to do, then proceeded to follow Marsury with Sato. The family fell in alongside.

Tannin had ensured word spread out before them, as everyone who lived in the farms gathered to watch the strange woman walking nonchalantly towards the village. As she passed they joined the procession behind her. As Marsury neared the cluster of buildings every single villager was gathered ahead. Unsure of what to do, they gave her a wide berth. She approached the square at the market where on the other side the chieftain, Mansus, stood facing her. Tannin was at his side along with a few of the other men of the village. The cheiftain’s wife hung some ways back with concern evident on her face holding their newborn twins, a boy and a girl. Marsury stopped in the center of the square, about ten paces from where he stood. The cheiftain then whispered to Tannin, who ran around the perimeter of the square to rejoin his family.

“Whoever you are, you’re not welcome here. You need to leave.” The chieftain spoke with more confidence than anyone else up to that point, but his nervousness was still obvious.

“Why?” Marsury’s response was pointed. Not really defiant of his position, but making it clear that there she saw no point in such a hardline policy.

“Outsiders are not permitted here.”

“Has anyone in this village ever had contact with an outsider?”

The question brought the chieftain up short. He was unused to his authority being questioned. But he understood enough to know that simply refusing her further would lead to difficult questions later. The answer was no. Not ever. Not as far as they knew of their ancestors’ history. Although it was never brought up in groups, everyone of his people, including himself, always had those unspoken questions in the back of their mind. Were there even other people out their in the world? What would happen if they ever encountered them? Now both of those questions had been answered. Now what?

“No, we never have and I don’t see any reason why we should. We don’t have need of anyone else. How do I know you’re not a threat?” Mansus said.

Marsury actually laughed. That caused murmurs to ripple through the villagers, which annoyed Mansus.

“A threat? What threat could an old woman with a small boy possibly pose to hundreds of people?” she asked.

“You could be a witch!” He replied forcefully. “Maybe you travel to unsuspecting villages and convince them to let you stay, and then you poison them. Or cast spells that destroy their food. Where did you get that boy? He’s clearly not yours. You cannot stay!”

For the first time, Marsury seemed to be something other than impatient. She smiled at the chieftain. It was true, her skin was a few shades darker than these tropic villagers, and the boy’s was a few shades lighter albeit tanned from many days in the son. Mansus was haughty and full of himself and convinced he was always right. However, in the context of this isolated community it was clear that was not chieftain for no reason. She thought carefully before answering.

“I did not give birth to the child, you are right. But he is mine all the same. As far as a witch, you needn’t worry. I wouldn’t know how to convince you what you’re thinking of doesn’t exist in the real world.”

A younger man near the chieftain couldn’t hold his curiousity and found himself speaking before he could stop.

“So there are other people?” he got out before withering under the fierce glare Mansus directed his way.

“Oh many others.” Marsury said, “More than you can possibly imagine. It’s a big, wide world out there. But you are still very much alone. There are no other villages or people within many, many days travel from here.”

“Which makes me ask why have you come then?” Mansus took back control of the conversation.

“I’m looking for a home for my son and I, and where your village lies is as lovely a place as any I have found. I have been traveling for a long time. There are no other people anywhere close by. Send me away, and my boy and I will likely die.”

“Why did you leave wherever you are from then?”

Marsury sighed. “The reasons are many and of little interest to you. I was concerned that it might become dangerous to stay. But the problems there are not a concern here.”

“So you say. Maybe you’re fleeing from someone. I think you stole that child. Perhaps you are fleeing the boy’s family.” Mansus accused. He had no intention to give her a foothold. A thought then occured to him. “And how is it that you know our language?”

“Your language is not unique to you.” Marsury replied, “It has developed in an interesting direction in the generations of your isolation, but I recognized it. And I harmed no one. I found the boy. He had no one, so I took him in. No one is looking for us. No one would be found here, anyway. The world at large doesn’t know of this land and has no interest in finding out about it. I do not mean this as an insult, but you have nothing the world wants.”

The argument was not going in a direction she liked. She was not going to overcome their caution if this line of questioning continued. She had to go on the offensive.

“Chieftain. People. Listen to me. I am no threat to you and in fact I am quite the opposite. I am skilled as a healer.” Marsury said. She quickly surveyed the villagers. “I see many reasons I could be of use to you. There are four people here who are suffering ailments of the skin. Three who are having trouble breathing. That woman is pallid and ill in her stomach. That young man there is standing awkwardly from a broken leg that healed poorly. Lastly, I see two women that are with child. I can do much to aid them and help them give birth safely. I beseech you all. I can be of help to this village. I know much in the way of medicine. All I ask in return is a home for my son and I.”

That created a large stir through the crowd. Everyone started talking all at once. The expression on Mansus’s face made it plain he had lost his temper after he had lost control. The woman had cornered him. If she was as useful as she claimed, banishing her would prove unpopular. His near absolute authority only mattered so much. Besides, as obsitnate as he was he was no fool. She had spoken correctly about his people. She knew what she was talking about. Still, he did have to maintain appearances.

“Silence!” the chieftain shouted. The crowd quieted immediately. He gazed across his assemble village, appearing to be weighing things in his mind. He at last settled his eyes on the two hunters behind her. They were immediately uncomfortable under his glare. He made up his mind.

“Mikos. Sato. I would know exactly what happened out there. You will come to my home. Along with the elder men. We will hold a counsel.” he then fixed his gaze to Marsury. “We will decide what to do with you.”

****

Marsury settled at the common fire pit in the square. The latter hours of the day dragged on and the sun was starting to get low. First moon was visible in the opposite side of the sky. She fed the boy and cooed to him. She was still the center of attention but everyone kept their distance. She was confident she would be allowed to stay after playing her trump card. She was too valuable to send away. For all of his need to put on the show, Mansus was not naive. She was sure. Still, one coud never be completely certain.

At long last the coterie of men filed out of the chieftain’s hut. She stood as they made their way to the square and formed a semicircle facing her with Mansus in the center. Mikos and Sato were not part of it she noted, watching Mikos helping his friend towards his home. Most of the other villagers than reassembled to hear what conclusion the chieftain reached.

“Marsury,” Mansus began. Using her name, which he obviously learned from the pair, was a good sign. “After a long debate, it is my decision that for now, we will permit you to stay. We have no room for you in the village. But you may ply your trade here. We will allow some time to see if you are of use or a burden to us. But if we decide in time that you are not worth it or if we become suspicious of your intentions, we will force you to leave.”

“You are gracious and wise, chieftain.” she knew how to be diplomatic when she needed to be, “I noticed an outcropping of black boulders a short distance into the jungle but still close to the road. I shall settle there. You will only notice me when you need me.”

“Very well,” Mansus replied, “Oh and if you last here, your child is old enough he will be required to contribute as well.”

“Of course.” Marsury said.

“If everything is settled, I only have one final question. You did not share it with Mikos or Sato. What is the child’s name?”

Marsury gave an involuntary smile and nuzzled him before responding.

“Caden.” she said. “His name is Caden.”