John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The rotten fruits fell with a squelching sound, and, ants hurried from among the roots of the trees to investigate. The company hardly dared do more than nod.

“Therefore,” said Tyllwin, “I suggest we investigate the commotion which is shortly to take place at the main gate.”

He fell silent. A few dead leaves blew across the table. Most of them clustered before Tyllwin’s place, and he touched them with a bony hand, making them dissolve. The watchers trembled.

Still, the Margrave was relieved to find that nothing more outrageous was going to follow Tyllwin’s unexpected loquacity. He said, “Well, what is the opinion of you all?”

Ruman spoke up, with a glance towards Tyllwin that lasted only half a second after meeting Tyllwin’s eyes. He said, “I have not scried any such commotion.”

“But you have not scried since yesterday,” objected Gostala with feminine practicality.

“True, true. Then I am with Tyllwin.”

“Petrovic?” inquired the Margrave.

“I am aware,” that dried-up individual said in a doubtful tone, “that the people believe all our troubles would be at an end if we had a god, as other cities do. I hope that in this instance they are wrong; they usually are. Having heard from our neighbors at Acromel how severely they suffer from their deity-”

“This is far from the point,” interrupted Gostala, tapping the table with a thumb-bone which had once been the property of a man fortunate enough-or unfortunate enough-to be her lover. “I say we do not know. Let us therefore expect both nothing and everything.”

“Rational and well-spoken!” approved the Margrave. “Those in favor…?”

All present laid their right hands on the table, except Tuc, who had left his in the mouth of a dragon beyond an interesting sea of fire far to the north. Even Tyllwin moved with the rest, causing yet more leaves to wither and tremble on the tree that had suffered most since he broke from his impassivity.

“Agreed, then,” said the Margrave. “Let us go thither.”

The company rose with a bustle and began to adjourn to the main gate. The Margrave, however, remained behind a few moments, contemplating Tyllwin, who had not vacated his place.

When the others were at a distance he judged safe, he addressed the enchanter in a low voice.

“Tyllwin, what is your opinion of a god?”

Tyllwin laughed creakingly. “I have been asked that before,” he said. “And I will answer as I did then: I do not know what a god is, and I doubt that many men do, either.”

A branch on the tree overhanging him split with a warning cry, so that the Margrave flung up his hand automatically before his face. When he looked again, Tyllwin was gone.

The commotion at the gates, foreseen by Tyllwin and by no other of the council members, had already begun when the stately procession entered the avenue leading to them. Each enchanter had come after his or her own style: Petrovic walking with his staff called Nitra, from which voices could sometimes be heard when the moon was full; Gostala riding on a creature she had conjured out of the deep water which was its natural element, that cried aloud in heart-rending agony at every step; Ruman on the shoulders of a giant ape fettered with brass; Eadwil on his own young legs, although his feet shone red-hot when he had gone ten paces-this was to do with a geas about which no one ever inquired closely. The air about them crackled with the struggle between protective conjurations and the tense oppressive aura that enshrouded Ryovora.

In the wide street before the gateway a crowd had gathered, laughing, shouting, exclaiming with wonderment. In the midst of the throng, a man in outlandish attire, his face set in a frown of puzzlement, was vainly trying to contend with a hundred questions simultaneously.

The crowd parted to let the nobility by, and at once closed in again, like water around a slow-moving boat

The Margrave came up behind the rest, panting somewhat, for he was getting fat, and looked the stranger over curiously, while the people’s voices rose to almost a roar and then sank again into a muttering buzz. At last, having cast a beseeching glance at his companions and received no offers of assistance, he was compelled to address the newcomer.

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