John Brunner – The Traveler in Black


At the head of the council table-which, because the weather was oppressive, he had caused to be set out under the sycamore trees in the Moth Garden-the Margrave of Ryovora sat, frowning terribly.

Before him, the table stretched almost a hundred feet, in sections that were joined so cleverly the overarching trees could admire their reflections intact in the polished top. Nothing spoiled the perfection of this table, except the purplish sheen it had acquired from the heavy close air now filling the city.

To right and left of him, ranked in their chairs, sat the nobility of Ryovora, men and women of vast individual distinction: the merchant-enchanters, the persons of inquiring mind, the thinkers, the creators, all those to whom this city owed its fame and reputation.

The Margrave spoke, not looking at those who listened.

“Tell us what has taken place in your quarter of the town, Petrovic.”

Petrovic, a dry little man with a withered face like an old apple, coughed apologetically and said, “There are omens. I have cast runes to ascertain their meaning.

They have no known meaning. Milk has been soured in the pan four mornings running in my demesne.”

“And Ruman?”

Ruman was a man built like an oak tree, whose thick gnarled hands were twisting restlessly in his lap. He said, “I have slaughtered animals to divine what may be read in their entrails. I agree with Petrovic-these omens have no known significance. But two springs under the wall of the city, which have not failed in more centuries than I can discover, are dry this morning.”

“And Gostala?”

Gostala was a woman with a queenly bosom and a queenly diadem of white hair plaited around her head. She said, “I have watched the flight of birds each dawn for seven days, and also at sunset. The results are confused. But a two-headed lamb has been born in the village of Dunwray.”

“And Eadwil?”

Eadwil was hardly more than a boy. His chin was innocent of a beard and when he spoke his voice was like a reed pipe; still, one must respect his precocious wisdom. He said, “I have analyzed the relative situations of the stars and planets, and am driven to the hypotheses that either we know nothing at all or some unknown heavenly body is influencing events. A comet, perhaps. But yesterday lightning struck three times out of a clear sky, and-and, Margrave, I’m frightened!”

The Margrave nodded and made a comforting gesture in the air. It didn’t help much. He said, “But this cannot be the whole story. I move that we-here, now, in full council-ask Him Who Must Know.”

Eadwil rose to his feet. On his youthful lips trembled a sob, which he stoutly repressed.

“I request your permission to withdraw, then,” he said. “It is well known how He Who Must Know deals with those in-uh-my condition.”

The Margrave coughed and nodded approval of the discreet reference. Eadwil owed some of his precocity to the postponement of a major upheaval in his physiology, and the elemental they were considering found virgins vulnerable to his powers.

“Agreed,” he said, and Eadwil departed, sighing with relief.

Before they could proceed with the business before them, however, there was a rustling sound from far down the table, and a voice spoke like the soughing of wind in bare winter woods.

“Margrave, I suggest otherwise.”

The Margrave shifted uncomfortably in his chair. That was Tyllwin who spoke, a figure as gaunt as a scarecrow and as thin as a rake, who sat among them by courtesy because no one knew where he had come from or how old he was, but everyone knew he had many and peculiar powers which had never been put to use. Just as well, maybe. Whenever Tyllwin spoke, untoward events followed. The Margrave saw with alarm that several blossoms on nearby trees were withering.

“Speak, Tyllwin,” he muttered, and braced himself.

Tyllwin chuckled, a scratching noise, and the flowers on the whole of one tree turned to fruit and rotted where they hung. His nearest neighbors left their seats hastily and moved towards the Margrave’s end of the table.

Tyllwin’s huge found head, like a turnip-ghost’s, turned to watch them, and a smile curved his dusty lips. He said, “Is it not certain, masters of Ryovora, that these things foreshadow an important event?”

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