John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Since that was the best the black-clad man was willing to offer, Bernard had perforce to nod his acceptance.

“Go forward from here,” said his mentor, “until you reach three twisted alder-trees standing alone in a meadow. You will recognize them readily enough. Stand before them and bow your head three times, and then take the path around them. In a little while it will bring you to a city. And whatever you do, do not speak with a woman in clothing the color of blood. Otherwise I cannot answer for the consequences.”

“What nonsense!” thought Bernard to himself. But since he had no choice he thanked the other civilly and went on circumspectly down the lane.

The three alder-trees poked up, white and gnarled, from the grass of the promised meadow, like the fingers of a skeleton. Bernard hesitated, looking about him. He felt foolish to be going to do what he had been advised to do. Still, as far as he could tell no one was watching him, and the straightforward logic of common sense had long ago informed him that he was not at present in a location where common sense was greatly prized.

He was troubled, though, that he could see no sign at all of a road beyond this point, so that unless he did what he had been told, and it-ah-worked, he would have to retrace his path, with the concomitant prospect of a second encounter with Jorkas. For that he had no stomach. Accordingly he bowed his head three times, and was amazed to find that he was standing on a clearly-defined path. Which, he likewise noticed, led nowhere except around the alders.

Well, the black-clad man had said he should take the path which led around them. He turned to his left and strode resolutely along the circular path, hopeful of getting somewhere eventually.

At his third turn, when he was feeling truly embarrassed by his own silliness, he looked towards the alder-trees again and saw a very beautiful woman standing among them. She had a face of perfect oval shape, skin like mother-of-pearl and hair blacker than midnight. But she was gowned from shoulders to ankles in a dress that was red as blood.

She spoke to him in a musical voice, sarcastically. “And where do you think your circumambulations will carry you, my foolish friend? Did no one ever inform you that walking in circles takes you nowhere? Why not go forward? See!”

She raised her right arm, on which golden bracelets jangled, and when Bernard followed her pointing fingers he saw a city clustered around an enormous tower, the top of which resembled an onyx and the shaft of which resembled agate.

A strange sort of city! Yet at least a habitation, not a stretch of deserted countryside. He was half-minded to make hastily towards it, and yet felt a vague foreboding. There was an aura about that city…

He spoke to the air, to himself, not to the woman in red, and said, “The man who saved me from Jorkas advised me not to speak with a woman in a dress the color of blood. I assume this advice extends to not following any suggestion she may make to me.” Doggedly he continued his rotatory progress, while the woman’s laughter tinkled irritatingly in his ears, and was rewarded on his next circuit to see that she had gone. Somewhere. Somehow.

Moreover, another city was in “sight, and this was not so disturbing. Its towers were of gold and silver, and although the sky about it was of an electrical blue shade that seemed to presage nothing less familiar than the advent of a storm.

“There, perhaps,” reasoned Bernard, “I may escape this conglomeration of cryptic non-meaningful events, and may even track down someone who can tell me how to get home.”

He struck out across the meadow, and shortly came to a good though dusty road, which led straight towards the city with the gold and silver towers. Determined to reach it in the least possible time, he thrust the road behind him with feet that now began to ache more than a little.

“So!” said the enchanter Manuus, leaning back in his chair with a chuckle. “So!” he said again, dropping the cover-made of bat’s skin as fine and supple as silk -over his scrying-glass. “Well, well, well, well, well!”

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