John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Well!” he said, looking at the indisputably grassy surface of the narrow ride between two high hedges where to the best of his recollection-and his memory was a good one-there had shortly before been a tarmac highway. “Well!” he said again, and since there was no obvious alternative sat down on a rock and smoked a cigarette in a philosophical manner.

However, no one came by who might enlighten him on the fate either of his car or of the road it had been on, so when the cigarette had reduced to a stub, he dropped it in the grass, ground it out with his foot, and began to walk along the lane between the hedges.

By the straightforward logic of common sense, a road which had been here a scant hour ago could not during his absence have removed itself to another location. Therefore it must be he who was misplaced; he had no doubt missed his way in the pleasant summery woodland, and would eventually return if not to the road he had first followed then to some other that intersected with it.

He strode along jauntily enough, not much worried by the turn of affairs, and whistled as he walked. Occasionally the hedges on either side parted after he had gone by, and eyes studied him thoughtfully, but since he did not notice this fact it did not trouble him.

At length the hedges ended, and with them the trees of the wood, and he emerged onto a rutted track between two ploughed fields. On the near side of one of these fields a man with a kerchief tied around his neck and his legs soiled to the knee with dirt was backing up a large and obstreperous horse, harnessed to a cart whose contents were indeterminate but stank incredibly. Politely ignoring the smell, Bernard spoke to the man directly.

“Excuse me! Can you tell me the way to the London road?”

The man considered for a moment. Then he spat in the earth where it was new-turned by his horse’s enormous hooves, and said bluntly, “No.”

Well, that was at least an answer, if not a very helpful one. Bernard Brown shrugged and walked on.

Again the grassy ride passed between hedges, and began to wind so that at any one moment only twenty paces of it before and twenty behind were in clear view. From around a bend ahead a voice could be heard raised in song and growing louder. This voice was of intersexual quality, neither altogether male nor altogether female, and shrilled occasionally on the highest notes with shiver-provoking acidity.

Shortly, the singer came in sight, and Bernard found himself confronted by a young man, with very white hair cut short around his head, riding negligently on a gaily caparisoned horse that moved its head in time with the beat of its master’s song. His attire was extraordinary, for he wore a shirt of red and yellow and loose breeches of bright green, the color of a sour apple, and his horse was if anything more surprising, inasmuch as it was skewbald of purple and pale blue. The rider accompanied his singing on a small plucked instrument, the strings of which chirruped like birds.

When he perceived Bernard, he abandoned his song in mid-phrase, let his instrument fall on a baldric to his side, and halted his horse. Then he leaned one hand on the pommel of his saddle and fixed the pedestrian with bright hard eyes; these were violet.

“Good morrow, stranger,” he said in a light tone. “And what is your business here?”

“I’m trying to find the London road again,” said Bernard Brown, lifting his eyebrows in astonishment at the spectacle.

“There is no such road near here,” said the young man, and shook his head sorrowfully. “I know that to be a fact for all the roads in this vicinity belong to me.”

“Now this is all very well,” said Bernard, and gave a smile to show he was party to the joke. “But while it may amuse you to make such a grandiose assertion, it does not amuse me to be denied essential guidance. I’ve lost my way somehow, through taking a wrong turning in the woods, and I badly need directions.”

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