The Wanderer

Rating: G

For deannie, who wanted "Daniel has a cold/virus/creeping crud for the first time since descending."

When Arrom falls sick three days into his stay in the City, it is Shamda who takes responsibility for his care.

Some part of Arrom thinks that it's a bit odd for a well-respected man to be taking a role that he would've expected to be forced on someone considerably lower in status--hmm, that's interesting, he thinks, without knowing why. It's a train of thought that seems to come from without rather than within, and Arrom stays with it for as long as he can, hoping that it will lead him to himself. He wishes he could spend all of his energy on forcing those thoughts to take him where he wants to go, but most of what he has he is already using in an attempt to vomit a little less frequently, or at least to hold off long enough for Shamda to get a bucket.

The tent stinks, and Arrom is cold and shaking and his toes and fingers have gone numb, even though he knows that outside it's warm enough for the children to be shooed down to the river to swim. He drinks when Shamda tells him to, and keeps some of the water down, and wonders if all of this is connected. Was he cast out, abandoned, because he's carrying some horrible plague? Or did he catch something from the people here? That can happen, isolated populations coming into contact with each other, particularly if one side is more urbanized than the other...

Arrom scrabbles after the thought, but it's gone. "Dammit," he says, and it should be a curse but somehow on its way up his throat it picks up a coating of sourness and by the time it comes out of his mouth it's more like a wail.

"All will be well, Arrom," Shamda says, remarkably patiently for a man who's been puked on by a complete stranger three times so far. "Be calm. All will be well." Arrom's eyes are screwed shut, but he can hear the sound of cushions moving and the half-sigh, half-grunt that Shamda makes once he has arranged them to his satisfaction. "Perhaps I will tell you a story? One of the stories of my people. As it is said, if you think of another, you cannot think of yourself."

"I'd like that," Arrom says, and feels... right, just for a moment. Stories. Stories are good.

"Good! Good. I will tell you the story of the Wanderer." He clears his throat. "In a time before now, there was a ragged man who came among the people of a certain land. He went first to the people who called themselves the Azani and said to them, 'I am a traveler, in need of aid! Let me but come into your tents and take a meal with you, and I swear you will be rewarded.'

"The Azani looked at him, and saw that his robe was torn and un-mended, and that his hair and eyes were wild. They were afraid, and so they shouted and threatened him with sticks and knives until he fled.

"Next the Wanderer found the Heratsi, and said to them also, 'I am a traveler, in need of aid! Let me but come into your tents and take a meal with you, and I swear you will be rewarded.'

"The Heratsi saw the same things that the Azani had seen, and they were also afraid. They refused their tents to the Wanderer, but did not threaten him; instead they said kindly that they could not allow strangers within the tents, but they would give him water and food if he would go away and leave them in peace.

"He did so, and with the help of the water and cheese and flatbread that the Heratsi had given him, he reached a third camp, the camp of the Sirat. The Sirat believed that it was important to be kind to strangers, and so they welcomed the Wanderer, giving him a seat by the fire and a new robe and freshly-cooked meat.

"A few days later, however, the Wanderer began to speak of strange things. He urged the Sirat to abandon their traditional lands and go to the chappa'ai, and over time he became most insistent. He did not carry water, nor tend the flocks, nor any other thing that would have been helpful to those who had taken him in, but only went from person to person, telling them that they must leave. The people did not wish to take a long journey beyond the lands of their ancestors, and so they ignored him, and spoke unkindly of him when he was not there to hear.

"One morning, without speaking to anyone among the Sirat, the Wanderer left. He traveled for many days, over hills and through rivers and among the trees, until at last he reached our people. We are not a people to be cruel, like the Azani who sent him away to starve, or afraid like the Heratsi who would not welcome him, or closed-minded like the Sirat who would not listen. When the Wanderer told us of the great destruction that was coming, our people spoke together, and agreed that a man who had come from so far away might well bring good warning of danger, even as deer run ahead of fire in the summertime. So we folded our tents and went to the chappa'ai as the Wanderer had directed, and when we came out the other side we stepped into a warm springtime."

Shamda is quiet for a long while, and so Arrom rouses himself enough to ask, "Did the danger come?"

"Not to us," Shamda says. "But a year and a day after we stepped through the chappa'ai, the Wanderer told our people that we could return to our world if we chose, and then he was gone in a twinkling of light. A few people went back, and found only destruction, the grasses all dead and the rivers fouled." He reaches out and touches Arrom's knee where it curls against his chest. "And that is why you are welcome in my tent, Arrom. As it is said, kindness given will one day be kindness received."

Arrom isn't sure about that, but he certainly isn't going to argue the point. He drinks again, and eventually falls asleep just as the first of the cows comes home, bell clanging at its throat. His dreams that night are calm, and quiet, and full of lights, white and blue both.

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