Four days out from Thompson Station with his cart of wares. Two since the skuttlekovy killed two of his chanka and depleted his stores of the water. Thirst had taken hold. Delirious, he drove his remaining two chanka forward. He had to get to the next stop on his route. The sun beat down on the dry, cracked ground. The horizon swirled before him. The chanka slowly pulled the cart along the desert road.
He crested a small hill, peppered with scrub brush. A small village stood in the distance, nestled between two buttes. Frantically, he urged his chanka forward. The cart shook as it hurried towards the town.
He approached the main gates, which were open. Above, a not too imaginative sign read “Welcome to Two Buttes”. people leapt and ran out of the way of the racing cart as it careened towards the town center. The townsfolk, mostly miners and ranchers, watched as the stranger threw himself off of his cart and raced towards the well in front of the town office.
He quickly pulled the bucket from the bottom of the well, and threw the water onto his face, drinking as much as he could. Collapsing at the well, he breathed heavily. The townspeople gathered around.
The man slowly lifted himself, brushed off the sand on his jacket and walked back to his cart. He pulled a lever at the back, causing the side to fall forward revealing dozens of small bottles.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jamison Best. My tonics and tinctures can cure almost any ailment. Come one, come all. If you have an ailment that cannot be allayed, a condition that cannot be cured, give one of my potions a try. I guarantee you will be feeling better within the day. Other tonics may improve, other potions may cure, but none are as effective as mine. If you are looking to improve your health, why should you not go with the Best.”
With a smile on his face as wide as could be bared, Jamison stood with his arms outstretched, looking at the crowd. The folks who had gathered glared back at him disapprovingly, before shaking their heads and going about their business. The salesman let out a short sigh and hung his head as his arms fell to his sides. He walked back over to the well, filled the bucket, and poured the cool water into a small trough he laid out for his two remaining chankas. He then went about rearranging the bottles in the cart.
He heard someone walking up from behind him. As quick as he could, he straightened his tie, brushed off his vest, and, with a large smile, spun around. To his surprise, the only person in front of him was a child, a girl no older than five years. The grin softened as he looked down at her.
“Excuse me, mister,” she said in a soft voice. “My mama is sick. Can you help her?”
Jamison was a little taken aback. He was not used to dealing with children.
“Uh. Lead the way, little one,” he replied, not sure what else to say.
He grabbed a bag of samples and followed the girl across the town square and down a short, wide path, to a small house at the edge of the town. She had already entered the house and left the door open. Jamison walked in, removed his hat, and closed the door gently behind him. He was standing in a small kitchen. The room looked disheveled and dust seemed to cover everything.
He could hear the kid talking to someone in an adjacent room, so he crossed the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Inside the room was the girl, a man sitting in a low, wooden chair talking to the girl, and a woman lying in a bed.
“Who are you,” asked the man, looking up from his conversation.
“I am Jamison Best.”
“I’m Thomas,” the man replied before being interrupted.
“Papa, this man has medicine,” exclaimed the child.
“Have the gods smiled on us? Can you help her,” he asked of the man in the doorway.
Jamison’s heart sank. He knew his concoction couldn’t truly cure ailments. Now he had the choice to either deceive the troubled family or tell them he couldn’t help.
“I don’t know-” he started, before being interrupted by the house door being thrown open.
“You,” shouted an angry man in his fifties. “Get the hell out of here. You’re not welcome.”
The older man grabbed Jamison by the vest, dragged him to the door, and pushed him out. Jamison stumbled and fell to the ground. The door slammed shut and raised voices could be heard inside.
Slowly, he picked himself, dusted himself off, grabbed his hat and bag, and slowly walked back to his cart. He wondered why he had gotten himself into this business. He was educated and had good prospects, but had thrown it all away. For what, to be thrown out of town after town.
Jamison started to lock up his cart and ready it to set out, when he once again heard someone approaching him. He turned around, expecting the little girl to be back, but was instead looking at her father.
“So, is it true what Warren said. Are you a fraud,” Thomas asked.
“Depends on what you mean by-” Jamison started before stopping, his morals getting the better of him. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“How can you do that,” asked the man, tears starting to fill his eyes. “Selling people false hope. How can you live with yourself?”
“You want an honest answer,” he asked rhetorically. “I wanted to help people. Even went to medical school in Argenstrath. But, life doesn’t always work out. And people have to live with the decisions that they’ve made.”
“So, you are a doctor,” Thomas responded.
“I never went through residency. So, no, I am not officially a doctor. I would like to help, but I doubt I am welcome to do so.”
“Well, that’s my decision. We lost our physician last year in a landslide. The midwife is the closest to a doctor that we have and she says there is nothing that can be done. She doesn’t even know what is wrong. Please, if you have any decency, help my wife.”
“What about the angry man that threw me out earlier?”
“That was Warren, my father-in-law. He will have to deal with it. It’s my house and my choice.”
“Very well. I will see what I can do.”
The two of them went back to the house. The woman’s father stared daggers at Jamison, but didn’t say anything. The little girl sat on the chair next to the bed. In the bed was a young woman. Covered in sweat and her face twisted into a pained grimace, even as she slept.
“How long has she been like this?”
“Two days,” Thomas replied. “I don’t know what happened. She said she wasn’t feeling well, then collapsed while making dinner.”
Jamison began to examine her. She was burning to the touch and was taking short, shallow breaths. Her heart was racing. He motioned for Thomas to help him move her onto her side. He lifted the back of her blouse, which provoked an angry response from her father. However, there on the middle of her back was a large, black sore. Jamison took some pillows and blankets and used them to keep her on her side. Gently covering her with another blanket, he told them to gather some clean water and cloths. He also needed some things from his cart and quickly ran out.
After a several minutes, Jamison returned, breathing heavily. In his hands were a doctor’s bag and an amber bottle filled with a viscous liquid.
“Do you know what’s wrong with her,” asked Thomas.
“I think so,” Jamison replied. “However, I don’t know if there is anything I can do for her.”
Jamison opened the bottle, poured a small amount into a glass of water, and handed it to Thomas.
“Make sure she drinks all of this.”
“What is it? Will it cure her?”
“No, it won’t cure her. But, she will feel better.”
Thomas nodded and while he slowly gave it to his wife, Jamison cleaned and bandaged the sore.
“Is she going to be alright,” asked Thomas.
“I don’t know. But, there is nothing more I can do for her.”
“Then what good was all of that,” shouted Warren. “I knew you were a fraud.”
“I said there is nothing more I can do for her,” Jamison stated. “But, I know someone who might be able to, and she is not too far from here.”
“Who? Where is she,” asked Thomas.
“Her name is Annika. She lives in a Pavostanni village about a day’s travel from here.”
“We don’t need help from a demon,” said the father sternly.
“Why would she be able to help,” asked Thomas. Warren scoffed at the question.
“It looks like she was bitten by a desert recluse,” Jamison answered. “I don’t know many small towns that carry any medicine for it, but the Pavostanni have other treatments for it.”
“If it’s just a spider bite, she will get better on her own,” said her father.
“Look, usually people who are bit and get sick improve after a day or two,” Jamison explained. “She doesn’t seem to be getting better. The closest town that might be able to help is Thompson Station, three days away. She might not make it that long. The Pavostanni village is the only choice.”
“We don’t need their help, Thomas,” Warren said quietly and sternly.
“If it’s the only way, I have to try. Take care of Sarah while I am gone,” he replied before turning to Jamison. “When do we leave?”
The scorching sun beat down on their shoulders as they made their way through the twisting paths in the gorges of long dead rivers. They had been on the trail since just before dawn. It was later than Thomas wanted to leave, but Jamison knew better than to travel the desert at night. The heat of the day may be brutal, but night was when the real dangers came out.
Shortly after midday, they began climbing up and out of one of the smaller canyons, which opened up to a long, narrow salt flat mostly surrounded by short cliffs. Far in the distance, the snow capped peaks of the Hogannmar could be seen. They headed east towards a lower section of the cliff. As they approached, Thomas could barely make out a thin path zigzagging its way up.
The heat and light was intense and they had wrapped their heads in large scarfs to prevent their skin from burning. Thomas hoped they were nearly at their destination and Jamison hoped their water would last for the return trip.
“So, Mr. Best,” Thomas began, after the two of them spent most of the trip in silence. “How much farther are we to travel?”
“Once we reach the top of that cliff, we will have a better idea,” Jamison replied, pointing towards the path in front of them.
“How do you know where we are going?
“I used to have dealings with this village, though it has been nearly four years since I’ve been back there.”
“Why so long,” Thomas asked.
Jamison paused before responding.
“We had a falling out,” Jamison started. “They did not approve of some of my decisions and I was asked to leave. In hindsight, they were correct to disapprove.”
“They kicked you out and now we are hoping that they will help us?”
Thomas sounded worried and a little angry. He felt uncomfortable travelling all this way on the chance he would get help, led by a man that they didn’t care for.
“They may not like me, but they should still be willing to help, I hope.”
They began climbing, again. Their mounts were stumbling on the loose sand and rocks of the path. It took the better part of an hour, but they made it to the top without any problems. In front of them was a shallow valley, filled with a labyrinth of large boulders and short buttes. Centuries ago, rivers had carved out these intricate trails. Now, all that remained were the beds and the plant life that still clings to what precious water is left deep in the ground.
Continuing east, they made their way around the rock formations. Jamison began to feel uneasy. He couldn’t quite place the feeling, but it was almost as if he was being trapped.
“Hurry now, Thomas. We should get out of this valley as quickly as possible.”
“Why would you want to do that,” said a voice that seemed to come from all around them as it echoed among the boulders.
Jamison and Thomas quickly pulled on the reins and brought their beasts to a stop. Thomas looked around frantically.
“Stop squirming, Thomas,” Jamison said while slowly surveying the area. “Come out, we are not looking for trouble,” he continued, talking to the disembodied voice.
From behind a large rock, a very tall, muscular woman stepped out. She wore a red and green tunic and pants that had clearly been made for moving quickly and quietly. The fabric was intricately detailed with bead work. Her long tail loosely wrapped around her waist. She held a long spear in her hands, but Jamison could clearly make out a rifle hanging from her back on a long leather strap.
“Then what are you looking for,” the woman continued.
“We need help…” Jamison paused, recognizing who the voice belonged to, now that she had stepped into view. “Marishka?”
She squinted her eyes, trying to place his voice. With four long strides, she covered most of the distance between them. As she approached, Jamison removed the scarf from around his face. She recognized him immediately.
“Jamison,” she said under her breath, almost cursing his name. “What are you doing back here? You were told to leave and never to return.”
“This man here needs help,” Jamison began. “His wife is very ill and the only person I knew of, who was nearby, that could help was Annika.”
She scowled at him and drew closer. It was only then that Thomas saw how truly tall this woman was. On his mount, Jamison was less than a head taller than she was. As they conversed, four others came out from behind their cover and into the open.
“We have no interest in helping you or anyone with you,” Marishka shouted.
“Please, at least let me ask Annika if she would be willing,” asked Jamison.
“She has no interest in seeing you. Not after how you left,” she turned and signalled to her group that they would be leaving.
“Obserzhde,” said Jamison, barely loud enough to be heard.
“What did you say,” demanded Marishka with fury in her eyes.
“Obserzhde,” he said louder and with more conviction.
“How dare you!”
Marishka looked furious. The others, however, stopped and looked first at Jamison and then to their leader.
“You should leave now, before you say something you might regret,” Mariska continued, the anger still heavy on her face and her long tail, having fallen from her waist, swished quickly behind her.
Mariska continued to leave, but the others with her did not move. When she noticed this, she turned and demanded that they follow.
“He has asked for Oberzhde. He has the right,” said one of them.
“He has no rights here. He is not one of us,” Marishka turned to face Jamison before continuing. “And he is not wanted here.”
“He has the right. Any who ask for Oberzhde will be heard,” stated another.
Marishka grew frustrated and stood still for several moments, thinking.
“Fine! You will be allowed to speak,” she finally said, breaking the silence. “Follow quickly.”
The group rapidly departed. Marishka walked at the front with two of her party marching close behind. The other two walked behind Jamison and Thomas. Thomas, who had remained silent through the whole encounter out of surprise and fear, felt compelled to speak.
“Jamison, what just happened?”
“They are taking us to their village. Hopefully, we will be able to ask about getting help.”
“What was that ober..whatever thing you said? The tall one was really angry that you said it.”
“Some of the villages in this area have a tradition called Obserzhde,” Jamison explained. “It allows people to speak, discuss problems, and such. Usually, it is someone from within the village or a neighboring village that wants to talk to the people in an official way. It is mostly ceremonial, but it is still an important tradition.”
“Then why was she so angry?”
“Marishka is not pleased to see me. And of all outsiders, me asking for it is the last thing she wanted.”
Thomas nodded. He did not fully understand what was going on, but, if his wife was going to get the help she needed, he needed to trust that this plan would work.