John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The young man drew himself upright and urged his horse forward-and it could be seen now that this was not a young man riding a horse, nor was there in fact a horse being ridden, but some sort of confusion of the two, in that the man’s legs were not separated at all from his mount. They ended in fleshy stalks, uniting with the belly of that part of the composite animal resembling a horse.

“This is extraordinary!” thought Bernard to himself, but being mannerly forbore to remark on the combination.

The young man gave him a hard stare, hand falling to a sharp sword beside his left thigh. “Who are you?” he demanded. “And where are you from, that you do not recognize me?”

Nettled, Bernard rejoined, “Unless you had taken part in a circus, or been exhibited at the Zoo, I would not presume to recognize you!”

The horse-head and the man-head together reared back in appalled amazement, and the bright sword whined through the air. Discreetly, feeling that he had to do with a creature whose mind was as abnormal as its body, Bernard had already stepped out of range when the blade flashed by.

“I am Jorkas!” howled the man-horse creature. “Now do you still say you do not know me?”

Alarmed at the composite personage’s behavior, Bernard replied in a tone as civil as could be expected after the attack with the sword, “No, sir, I do not, and I may say that your actions give me little cause to wish we had become acquainted earlier.”

The man-face contorted with unbelievable rage, and the sword swung high for a second blow as the horse-body danced three steps towards Bernard. He was on the point of making an inglorious-and predictably ill-fated-retreat, when a sudden ringing noise indicated that the blade had struck something very resistant in its downward passage. Indeed, the man-creature was shaking its sword-arm as though it had been numbed all the way to the shoulder.

The obstacle the sword had encountered was a glittering staff, upheld in the firm grip of a black-clad man who had somehow contrived to approach the two of them without being noticed. This person was now standing, leaning on the staff, and regarding Jorkas with a wry expression.

Jorkas shrugged, sheathed the sword, and took up his instrument again. His horse-legs bore him cantering away down the lane, and when he was out of sight around the bend his counter-tenor voice was once more heard raised in song.

“Thank you, sir,” Bernard said to his rescuer, wiping his face and not unduly surprised to find he had been perspiring. “I must confess I was not prepared to meet anything like that in this quiet lane.”

The black-clad one smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. “I have rendered some small service,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I would add a smidgin of advice to it, too. If you expect nothing and everything, you will do well.”

Bernard settled his jacket more comfortably around his shoulders and blinked several times in succession “Well, sir, taken whichever way, I cannot see your advice proving unsound. Particularly if this neighborhood is populated by more amazing freaks such as Jorkas!”

“Yes, he. bears the imprint of chaos, does he not?” said the man in black. “He is left over, so to speak. He is fairly harmless; things have by-passed him, and his power grows small.”

“The power of that sword, had it reached its target, would have been quite sufficient to dispose of me, Bernard pointed out. “Has he escaped from some- some fantastic menagerie?”

“He has rather endured from a period of absolute confusion,” was the reply, which though apparently meaningful served not at all to lessen either Bernard’s puzzlement or his alarm. He decided, nonetheless, to forego further inquiry into the matter, and to revert to his major preoccupation.

“Can you, sir, tell me where lies the London road?”

“I can,” said the other with a chuckle. “But it would be of small help to you if I did, since you cannot come to it from here. No, listen to me, and I will give you directions which will eventually bring you where you wish to be.”

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