The three of us stood there beside the shallow, shining pool weapons drawn and edgy. Chalmers, my right-hand-man on the expedition pointed his thin sword at me, but kept his eyes fixed on the newcomer, a woman. She was wounded worse than the two of us - she probably had less than twenty-four hours left. She'd outlast us all if she got today's cup.
That was something we hadn't expected. We searched out the fountain of youth, which led Chalmers and me, as well as our many assistants and guides, halfway across the South American continent. We spoke to locals, both learned university professors and those who merely knew the folklore of their region. We thrashed through jungles, waded through swamps, climbed mountains and crossed valleys, until we finally found it, a day's journey into a deep cave under the Peruvian Andes.
That was when Chalmers stabbed me. He said he needed to be sure this was the real fountain of youth, and he surely wasn't going to injure himself as a test.
The Royal Society was apparently paying him four times as much as I was.
He brought the cup to my lips and I drank in haste, feeling energised and healed immediately. My wound closed right away, but then I felt the energy draining from me, little by little, and my wound began opening again. Chalmers thought perhaps I hadn't drunk enough of the healing waters, and offered me a second cup, but it did no good. Twenty-four hours later, my wound was as fresh as when it had been inflicted. Only then did we realise the fountain's terrible secret: each day, it could bestow only one more day to one person. If you were mortally wounded, you could do no better than to sit by the pool and drink from it daily to prolong the inevitable. If you were of good health, it would almost appear to do nothing.
Perhaps long ago it had greater power than this, but today it does not.
In a struggle that second day, I had managed to break Chalmers' leg - a payback for my stab wound - and we had maintained an uneasy truce since then, I taking enough water to live another day, and he relying on my medical expertise to stave off his own potential infection. We could not leave until Chalmers had healed and could bring help.
That is why the injured woman was so troubling. Without the water today, I would die, and so would she.
Between her Spanish and my Latin we managed to communicate enough to learn of her village, three days journey on foot to the East, where she said they had medicine, food and ... perhaps she said elephants? Her accent and our different languages made subtle differences into big difficulties. But no difficulty was as big as two mortally wounded travellers plus one with a broken leg trying to make a three day journey on foot. We would surely die on the way.
"Well, this is a jam," said Chalmers, and, little by little, his sword tip dropped. I was in no shape to overpower him, but it started feeling like that wouldn't be the right course of action anyway. He was right. I and the woman needed the water to live through the day, and Chalmers needed at least one of us to help him walk. We needed her to show us to the village. "What can we do?"
The answer had come to me already, unfortunately. I took the cup and, before Chalmers could reach me across the pool, I had it in the woman's hands and she began to drink.
"What are you doing, man? You'll die!" He was only concerned for himself, but it sounded almost genuine.
"The two of you," I began, dressing the woman's shrinking wound as I spoke, "may reach the village on foot in time to send help back here. Take some of the water with you, and use it on the way if you must. I will stay here and hope for the best, awaiting your return. If all of us are extremely lucky, we may yet get out of here alive."
Chalmers eyed me suspiciously, but with the woman to guide him and the water to heal them on the road, they stood a good chance. It was the most good I felt I could wring from the situation, and as I watched them go by the faint light of the glow worms, I did sincerely hope they would make it.
Perhaps, as I said, if I am lucky, I may get out of here, too.
Mokalus of Borg
PS - The concept here came from a half-dreamed thought earlier in the week.
PPS - I made the explorers British because it just seemed to fit.