John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The traveler shook his head and gave a wry smile. “It’s a fair span since I set foot there. Indeed, I was hoping you might be able to give me certain information which I lack, rather than vice versa.”

Eadwil looked politely downcast at being of no help; then one of the boys grew impatient and started to fidget.

“Home?” said his grandfather, and laughed indulgently. “Very well-old Harpentile is in no state to notice that we failed to attend his burying. Good day to you, sir,” he added to the traveler. “It’s been pleasant to renew our acquaintance, and I greatly hope you find someone who can aid you in these inquiries where I failed you.”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler under his breath, and a great weight seemed to recede from his heart.


That accomplished, there was no more to ‘do than sit and wait until the course of fate worked itself out. The traveler took a chair at a curbside tavern; with his elbows on a green table-top, protected from the rain by a pink umbrella, he watched the passers-by and wondered in what guise his helper would come.

The avenue grew crowded as the day wasted. Horsemen in gay jerkins with armor clanking at their saddlebows came by, challengers in some tourney for the hand of an heiress; also there were pedlars, and wonder-workers possessed of a few small tricks-for which they had paid excessively, to judge by their reddened eyes, pocked cheeks, limping gait or even womanly-shrill voices…. No wonder, the traveler reflected, Eadwil felt his grandsons were the better bargain.

Women, too, passed: high-wimpled dames attended by maids and dandling curious unnamable pets; harlots in diaphanous cloaks through which it was not quite possible to tell if they were diseased; goodwives with panniers of stinking salted fish and loaves of bread and sealed jars of pollywogs for use in the commonplace home enchantments of this city.

And children likewise: many naked, not necessarily from poverty but because skin was the best raincoat under Barbizond’s light continual shower, others in fantastical costumes to match their parents’ whims- helmets of huge eggshells, bodices of leaves glued like scales and breeches made to resemble plant-stems in springtime. With spinning windmills, toy lances, tops, hoops and skipping-ropes, they darted among the adults and left a trail of joyful disorder.

There was no joy in the heart of the traveler in black-only a dulled apprehension.

The places at the tables before the tavern filled with customers, until only one was left-the second chair at the table where the traveler waited. Then, to the instant, appeared a curious bewildered figure from the direction of the city gate: a pale-faced, wild-haired man in a russet cape, clinging to a pitiful bag of belongings as though to a baulk of timber in an ocean of insanity. Time had etched his brow with suffering, and the traveler knew him the moment he clapped eyes on him.

Abreast of the tavern the stranger stopped. Enviously his eyes scanned the delicacies placed before the customers: fragrant stoups of wine, mounds of mashed fruit stuck with silver spoons, crisp sheets of the moon-bark that only this city’s enchanters knew how to conjure across the freezing gulf of space without spoiling. Huddling his bag under his arm, he felt in his script for money, and produced one solitary copper coin.

Hesitant, he approached the traveler in black. “Sir, by your leave,” he muttered, “will this purchase anything at your tavern here?” And proffered the coin on a trembling palm.

The traveler took it and turned it over, and was at pains to conceal the shock he felt on seeing what name the reverse of the coin bore.


A city in Time so great and famous that rumors of it had crossed the tenuous border of chaos, running ahead of those who bore its news until the stories were magnified beyond believing, until there were prophecies caused by the recirculation of those rumors through one corner of eternity and back to Time ahead of reality.

“No?” said the stranger sadly, seeing how long the black-clad one spent staring at his only money.

“Why-!” the latter exclaimed, and rubbed the coin with his fingertips, very lightly. “I should say so, friend! Is it not good gold, that passes anywhere?”

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