It blazed across the night sky, parting the dark tapestry and dimming the shimmering stars. Only a few saw its brilliance, but by the time the sun had swum underneath the world and returned, word of it had spread like the wave-rings from a stone tossed into a calm pool. “A flaming arrow,” one said as he described how it arced across the sky and disappeared behind the great mountain that loomed to the north. The old ones said it was a sign–an omen that strangers would soon travel through their small village–and their oral tradition held that such had happened before.
Several days later a small boy sat at the river’s edge, switching a length of cane across the slow moving water, delighting in the ephemeral geometrics he inscribed on the surface. “Salaque! Come quick!” shouted a friend. “They have come!” Salaque tossed the switch-cane into the river and ran upstream along the riverbank to where he saw an amazing sight: A mass of curious villagefolk were following four peculiar creatures (although they appeared human-like from their waists up) floating down the river. The four soon beached and stepped out of their colorful shells, sending a small group of children scurrying away as they did. Salaque stood back in the crowd that had gathered around the mysterious strangers, but still close enough to hear and see everything that went on. The visitors were tall–taller than the tallest man in the village–and their skin was of a pale cast, except where the sun had left its crimson mark. They spoke a strange, unintelligible tongue, and with their hands gestured that they had journeyed down the river from near its source at the foot of the great mountain that loomed to the north. Salaque wondered: Could these be the travelers foretold in the fireball? Then Salaque remembered a story–a story told to him by his father–about pale visitors who had once pushed out of the forest and into their village while riding inside giant beasts that roared and belched a fowl, acrid breath. It seemed they were searching for something and stayed only a short while, soon departing for the lowlands by way of the small roads and trails that linked the villages. News later trickled back about these strangers and how they had discovered a black substance that made them very happy. Then Salaque remembered another story–an old, old story that had been passed down for many generations–about visitors who one day rode into their village on the backs of tall, four legged creatures that snorted and blew in a fearsome manner. It was said these travelers were also in search of something and forcibly took from the elders and medicine people their talismans of green stone and those adornments fashioned from the element that possessed the luster of the sun. It had been said that these revered possessions were ripped from the flesh of those who did not give them up willingly.
So it was with some doubt, some trepidation, that Salaque viewed these travelers; he kept his distance. Suddenly much laughter rang out and Salaque stood on his toes to see what all the excitement was about. He saw that one of the tall ones had placed a young girl into one of their rivercraft and was pulling her around the shallow pool. Her delight was apparent as she giggled and splashed water upon her newfound friend. Another tall one held a small, colorful jar in his hand and dipped a small ring into the jar. He brought the ring to his mouth and with small puffs of breath sent streams of gossamer spheres out into the crowd, delighting the children and baffling the elders. Salaque chased one of the shimmering orbs, reaching and grasping for the elusive jewel as it rode the breeze, then watched as it suddenly vanished.
He turned his attention again to the strangers who got back in their watercraft and headed downstream. He watched as they dipped wooden wings into the water and flew like skittering waterfowl along the surface of the river. Theirs was a movement nimble and quite unlike the one managed by the men of the village who sometimes poled a massive hollowed log across the nearby river. He watched as they disappeared around a bend in the river.
He ran down the winding trail that followed the river’s course, soon catching up with the strangers, but here the trail turned abruptly away as the river pitched down into a steep gorge. He waved goodbye to the strangers and they waved back as they dropped out of sight below the place where the starburst was cast in the dark stone of the canyon wall. He began the walk back to his village.
“Father, who were those?” he later asked an elder. “They were surely on a quest, but one I cannot understand–they seemed to want nothing more than to float upon the river and they only quickened their pace when they neared the place of the stone starburst, where the river spills into the steepness.”
“Yes, they were strange men-creatures, indeed,” answered the elder. “They seemed to want not of anything ordinary men need or desire. It was as if they partook their sustenance from the river itself. I believe they were travelers from a very different world than our own.”
Life soon returned to normal in the villager, for even though the event had been an exciting one, the strangers had simply passed through, leaving no mark, and disturbing nothing. As time went on Salaque sometimes thought about the strangers who had floated down the river, and at those times smiled to himself for he knew that he now had a story of his own to pass on.