John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

His fist, big as a ham, cracked his mother behind the ear.

“Why don’t you die, you lazy old cow, and get it over with?” he bellowed.

“It’d be a merciful relief,” the woman whimpered. “And die I would of my own free will, but that I stand alone between you and Mintra! With me gone you’d take her like a harlot, sister or no!”

“And wouldn’t she be a tasty bit for my bed?” chortled the son with an evil grin, his tongue emerging thick as an ox’s to stroke his lips lasciviously.

“As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.” And he knocked his staff on the threshold and took his leave.

That night the plague stole silent from the mountain mist, and took the mother as the son had wished; then the girl Mintra fled on light feet down the hill-trails and the fever-giddy glutton went calling her among the heedless sheep until his gross weight dislodged a rock and sent him over a precipice to feed the crows.

In the rich city Gryte a thief spoke to curse the briefness of the summer night, which had cut short his plan to break the wall of a merchant’s counting-house.

“Oh that dawn never overtook me!” he cried. “Oh that I had lasting darkness whereby to ply my trade!”

“As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.” And darkness came: two thick grey cataracts that shut the light away.

Likewise in Medham was another rogue, striving to seduce a lady who feared her charms were passing with the years so that he might win to a coffer of gold secreted in her chamber. “I love you!” declared this smooth-tongued deceiver. “I’d wed you had you no more than rags and a shack!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and bailiffs came down the street to advise the lady that her house and treasure were forfeit on another’s debt. Upon which the liar turned and ran, not staying to hear a city officer who followed hard on the bailiffs’ heels report the honoring of the debt a day past due.

So too in Wocrahin a swaggering bully came down the street on market-day, cuffing aside children with the back of his hand and housewives with the flat of his sword. “Oh that my way were not cluttered with such riffraff!” he exclaimed, his shoulder butting into the traveler’s chest.

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and when the bully turned the corner the street he walked was empty under a leaden sky-and the buildings on either side, and the taverns, and the shops. Nor did he again in all eternity have to push aside the riffraff he had cursed; he was alone.

This, however, was not the sum total of the traveler’s doings as he passed from place to place within his realm. In Kanish-Kulya they had built a wall to keep Kanishmen and Kulyamen apart, and from either side, set into the masonry, grinned down the skulls of those dead in a war for which the reason had long been forgotten. In this strange and dreadful place Fegrim was pent under a volcano; shadowed by its cone the traveler halted and spoke long and seriously with that elemental, and when he was done the country for a mile on every side was dusted with cinders, little and bright as fireflies.

At Gander’s Well, branched Yorbeth brooded in the guise of a tall tree whose main root tapped a wonderful subterranean spring and whose boughs, fed with miraculous sap, sprouted leaves and fruit the like of which had not been seen under any sun before. The traveler spent an hour in the shade of that tree, and for the questions he asked was constrained to carry away a red twig and later catch a cat and perform a ceremony with these two items-a price he paid with heavy heart, for he had been told nothing of any great use in his inquiries.

Also he consulted with Farchgrind, and in Leppersley he cast the bones of a girl’s foot to read the runes they formed, and after great labor he incarcerated Wolpec in a candle over whose flame he smoked a piece of glass which thereupon showed three truths: one ineluctable, one debatable and one incomprehensible. That was in Teq, when the end of his journey was near.

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