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The Storyteller stood, waiting patiently until his audience settled down. He was paid for the length of time required to tell his tale, and if that time was extended as he waited for his listeners to stop talking, well, that was between them and their chieftain, the man who had employed him to entertain them for an evening - and also educate them. He wasn't going to strain his voice, the voice on which he depended for his livelihood, trying to be heard above excitedly chattering voices.
And of course they were excited; this break from their normal routine was very welcome to them.
As the last voice quietened he began, telling the story his employer had asked for.
"Long ago, in the Beforetime when the world was ruled by what was called technology, there was a myth - a story told from the Age before that, when Man had just begun to invent and build the machines on which he depended for many generations.
"Myths are strange things. Sometimes they are a faint memory of an event that had happened in the far distant past, and about which little positive detail has survived. Sometimes people believe in them even when they are nothing more than a stylised and much embellished fiction, told with the intention of misleading; sometimes they are dismissed as the product of an over-active imagination, even when they are based on fact; many things have been dismissed as 'travellers' tales' because they were not familiar to the people hearing about them. So it was with this one. The man who first heard it in the early days of the Age of Technology was a traveller who found that he was laughed at when he mentioned it, for no other travellers had encountered it. But he was a man of learning, who knew how to write - " The Storyteller paused for a moment, expecting the awed gasp uttered by his audience, then continued - "and he wrote down in a book what he had heard... but his book was regarded as fiction, a tale told to entertain the credulous.
"After he died his book was lost for many years, but one day a scholar discovered it, read it, and found the tale it told fascinating. After he finished the main part of his education, Balair decided to continue with his studies instead of seeking employment, making the subject of the myth his focus.
"For he too had travelled, and he too had, in remote places, found tribes unburdened by technology who spoke freely of men like the ones in the myth; men who could count the spots on the wings of a butterfly or hear the beat of an owl's wings even if both were a hundred yards away, follow a day-old trail by scent, detect by taste all the herbs that had gone into a stew, and know by simply touching a sick child if he - or she - was developing a fever.
"He searched his world, and found a few men and women who had a powerful sense of taste or smell, a very few who could see better than other men though not at the distance the book claimed, but that was all. Nowhere did he find one with all five senses stronger than usual... until one day a friend contacted him, to tell him of a man who was, even then, visiting the local Healer, complaining of the light being too bright, of the sound of people talking too loudly, of being unable to enjoy food because it was too sweet or too salt, too spicy or too bitter, of the sheer stench of people around him.
"Balair hurried to the Healer's house and there he spoke to Jim - for that was the man's name - quickly learning that Jim did indeed have a heightened sense of touch to go with the other four.
"Jim was at first unwilling to believe Balair, reluctant to accept that there was nothing actually wrong with him, that he was not in fact ill, but the scholar finally convinced him that he possessed a rare gift and that people with that gift had been valued by the tribes where they lived. The two men began to work together, quickly becoming friends, but they kept Jim's abilities secret from most of their acquaintances, for they knew that if what he could do became common knowledge there were those who, from fear, would seek to kill him.
"They worked together for many years with Balair helping Jim to control his sometimes erratic senses, but only once did they meet another sentinel - for that was the name for what they were that the long-dead traveller had used in his book - and she had been driven insane by the intensity of what she could see and hear and feel... for she had nobody to help her.
"When they were dying - for their bond of friendship was so close that they died in the same hour, almost the same minute - they entrusted Balair's written account of Jim's gift, and the ways Balair had found to help him, to Jim's brother's grandson Willyam, a young man who had excellent sight and hearing, but not the other senses.
"That record, held by Willyam's grandson who was also named Jim, survived when the Age of Technology collapsed, although the book by the traveller Burton did not. We, the Storytellers of the world, know the contents of Balair's record and they indeed record the achievements of an extraordinary man. No - not one man. The achievements of two extraordinary men.
"We are some centuries past the Age of Technology - technology came close to destroying our world, and the men who led us out of the chaos that followed its collapse had the wisdom to understand that. Every leader chooses his successor carefully, selecting one who will not be led along the path of greed but will do his best for his people. Sentinels have occasionally manifested in those years, and have always acted as advisers for their chiefs as well as protecting their communities. A community that has a sentinel flourishes, but only because, as the chief leads it along the path of diligence, the sentinel helps its hunters find game, protects it by warning of the approach of bad weather, helps the Healer diagnose illness and find the herbs he needs to treat the sick - for where wild herbs grow one year, they might not be found the next.
"A community flourishes when it has a strong chief - and I can see that this community is indeed a flourishing one, for only a successful one can afford to spend a late summer evening with its people listening to a Storyteller instead of working in the fields; but a community with a sentinel cannot fail."
The Storyteller bowed, then sat on the stool provided for him as his audience clapped enthusiastically. Why, he wondered, had Chief Dayve asked for this particular story, asked for it to be finished with those eight words? Unless he has found a sentinel, and wants to prepare his people...
The Chief rose from where he sat on the ground beside his people - that he did not seek to elevate himself, but shared their lives as an apparent equal, was one of the things that endeared him to them and ensured that they would follow his leadership unquestioningly - pulling up with him a young man and leading him to the slightly raised platform where the Storyteller sat.
"Storyteller," Chief Dayve said quietly, but his voice could be heard clearly by every man, woman and child present. "I have spoken with the leader of your Guild, and he has agreed that I should ask you to alter your life as Balair did and remain here, in support of my cousin's son. He too is called Jim. He is not as strong a sentinel as the legendary Jim, but he does have all five senses more acute than usual, and we would very much appreciate it if you could see your way to remaining here, making your life here, and helping him."
The Storyteller remained silent for a moment, thinking, before saying, "This has ever been one of my favorite stories although it is not one that is often asked for. I never thought that I might one day meet a sentinel - but now that I have, how can I refuse to help him? I know the contents of Balair's book well and I will be honored to put that knowledge to use."
He stepped down from the platform and took the few steps needed to join Jim, holding out his hand as he joined him.
Jim smiled as he too reached out to clasp hands in a greeting so old its origins had been long forgotten. "May I know your name?"
The Storyteller smiled back. "It was my distant ancestor who wrote the book," he said, "although we gifted it to the Storytellers' Guild many generations ago. I share my ancestor's name; I too am called Balair."