John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Perennially cautious, nonetheless, they financed the wages of a team of watchmen… and next day as dawn was breaking the current incumbent of the watchman’s post en route to his customary breakfast gave a casual glance across the country separating Ryovora from Acromel.

And saw with astonishment-not to mention disbelief-that a red idol a hundred feet high was striding with enormous yells towards him.

Such an idol, the watchman realized, could be none other than the Quadruple God of Acromel.

Around the monstrous crimson feet were fetters of riveted steel; before and behind, men went with blazing torches on poles fifty feet long, prodding and driving it in a desired direction. Sometimes the thing’s yelling howled into a ridiculous falsetto when a torch made contact with its blood-colored limbs, and the drovers had to scatter and flee from the blows of eight gigantic fists. But they returned, and it became plain to see that they now well understood the actions of their idol, and could drive it like a maddened bull because its rage made it unthinking.

The watchman sounded an alarm, that spread through the streets of Ryovora like flood-waters through a burst levee, and men, women, even children leapt from sleep to dash hither and thither in confusion.

One by one the nobles were summoned, and assembled on the ramparts in an impressive band; thousand by thousand the common folk acquired makeshift weapons-knives, scythes, axes-and numbered off into centuries to prepare for battle.

So arrayed they waited tensely while the sun cleared the horizon and the Quadruple God with his attendants came to take station before the city walls.

At a sign from one who seemed to be the leader, the torch-wielders compelled the god to halt, and he stood screaming empty threats at the unresponsive sky. Then this same man advanced to stand on a small knoll and gaze insolently at the nobles of Ryovora.

“Greetings!” he called merrily. “News has come to us in Acromel that you have been fortunate enough to acquire a god in the past few days! Well, as it happens we in Acromel have been fortunate in more ways than one-we have lost Duke Vaul, who had for many years oppressed us, and we have gained power of the Quadruple God.” The man gestured over his shoulder at the misshapen idol.

“It seems to us,” the spokesman went on, “that our god is very foolish, although extremely strong. It is said that your god is weak, but extremely wise. We have not been able to make head or tail of these cryptic utterances which have been relayed to us! Regardless of that, we wish to try conclusions and thus determine whether brute strength in a god is a quality superior to sageness. I await your answer, sirs and ladies! Failing this trial, we shall of course goad the Quadruple God into Ryovora, and since he overtops all but your highest towers, I suspect that would be a major misfortune for the city.”

He bowed with a flourish of his right hand, and descended from the knoll.

The Margrave, scowling so deeply it seemed a ploughshare must have crossed his brow, called the nobles into conference on the ramparts, and spoke worriedly concerning this challenge. Some were of opinion that if the personage with many names and one nature had taken a hand, there was nothing any of them could do; others poured scorn on this faint-hearted attitude, among them Ruman, whose bull laugh echoed around the walls.

“Never say die!” he boomed. “Some magic is of an order that will bind even gods, and I have important knowledge of this magic. Go, fetch me a black goat and a white pigeon, and a mirror cracked from edge to edge, and I will discomfit the Quadruple Idiot over there!”

So it was ordained, and Ruman withdrew into a large black cloud with his goat, his pigeon and his mirror, and what he did to them brought about thunderclaps.

But eventually the cloud blew away, and there was no trace of Ruman.

“This is ridiculous!” said Gostala with feminine directness, and Petrovic nodded his old dried-up head.

“I agree,” he rasped. “Goats, forsooth! Pigeons! Mirrors! Claptrap! Now I came prepared, Margrave- I have here a phial containing the blood of an unborn child. That and my knowledge are all I require.”

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