John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Why… Yes, I believe I do.” Jacques peered hard. “But from this distance I cannot tell who they are.”

“I can,” the traveler murmured. “They are those who are determined Jacques the scrivener shall not be denied participation in the doom of Ys.”

“What?” Turned sidewise in the gloaming, Jacques’s face was ghastly pale. “Why me? What do they want with me?”

“A reckoning.”

“But… !” Jacques shifted from foot to foot, as though minded to flee. “Explain! Pray explain!”

“So I will,” the traveler conceded wearily, and took a comfortable grip to lean on his staff. “You must understand first that the would-be enchanters of Ys have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and-as they desired-have called back those who created the city and maintained it in times past. And they found, as was inevitable, that these ancestors were human beings, with human faults and failings, and not infrequently with remarkable outstanding faults, because this is the way with persons who are remarkable and outstanding in other areas of their lives.”

“But-but I counseled against this foolishness!” stammered Jacques.

“No,” corrected the one in black. “You did not counsel. You said: you are pig-headed fools not to see that I am absolutely, unalterably right while everybody else is wrong. And when they would not listen to such dogmatic bragging-as who would?-you washed your hands of them and wished them a dreadful doom.”

“Did I wish them any worse than they deserved?” Jacques was trying to keep up a front of bravado, but a whine had crept into his voice and he had to link his fingers to stop his hands from shaking.

“Discuss the matter with those who are coming to find you,” proposed the traveler sardonically. “Their conviction is different from yours. They hold that by making people disgusted with the views you subscribed to, you prevented rational thought from regaining its mastery of Ys. Where you should have reasoned, you flung insults; where you should have argued soberly and with purpose, you castigated honest men with doubts, calling them purblind idiots. This is what they say. Whether your belief or theirs constitutes the truth, I leave for you and them to riddle out.”

Jacques looked again at the column of people winding out from the city gate, and now could see them in detail. At the head of the line was a blacksmith with a hammer on his shoulder; behind him, a ditcher came with a mattock, then a gardener with a sickle and two coopers with heavy barrel-staves. And those behind still bore each their handiest weapon, down to a red-handed goodwife wielding the stick from her butter-churn.

He glanced wildly around for a way of escape, teeth chattering. “I must run!” he blurted. “I must hide!”

“It would be of little help,” the traveler said. “Those people yonder are determined; though you hid in the pit of Fegrim’s volcano, they would still track you down.”

“Oh, misery me!” moaned Jacques, burying his head in his hands. “Would that I had never come to this pass! Would that what I’ve done could be undone!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and cheered up, for that put a very satisfactory end to this momentary aberration in the smooth progress of the cosmos. He tapped three times on a nearby rock, and under his breath he said, “Laprivan! Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes!”

Jacques screamed.

Below in the valley, the column of determinedly advancing men and women bound to wreak vengeance on Jacques hesitated, halted, and broke ranks in disorder that grew to panic. For out of the side of the hill Laprivan was peering, and what was behind his eyes belonged to the age when chaos was the All.

Some small power remained to him so long as he survived, and he applied it to this single and unique purpose: to wipe clean the slate of yesterday.

So he looked down on Ys, and saw there what was to him an abomination, the shadow of the past given substance. He reached out one of his arms, and erased -and erased-and erased…

Honorius, sowing contagious fever on the streets, was not.

Thirty sated children, smeared with blood on faces and fingers, were not.

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