John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

The traveler talked with Farchgrind almost in sorrow, mentioning this skepticism which had overtaken men, and accepted without contradiction the retort.

“You too,” said the elemental, “are part of the way things are, and I-I am only part of the way things were!”

Likewise, though there were hoofmarks on the road which Jorkas had patrolled, they were not his; some common cart-horse had indented them, and rain tonight or tomorrow would make the mud a palimpsest for another horse to print anew. Moreover at black Acromel that tall tower like a pillar of onyx crowned with agate where once dukes had made sacrifice to the Quadruple God was broken off short, snapped like a dry stick. In among the ruins fools made ineffectual attempts to revive a dying cult, but their folly was footling compared to the grand insanities of the enchanter Manuus who once had taken a hand in the affairs of this city, or even of the petty tyrant Vengis, whose laziness and greed brought doom on his fellows and himself.

“Ah, if only I could find the key to this mystery!” said one of them, who had bidden the traveler to share the warmth of a fire fed with leather-bound manuscripts from the ducal library. “Then should I have men come to me and bow the knee, offer fine robes to bar the cold instead of these shabby rags, savory dishes to grace my palate instead of this spitted rat I’m toasting on a twig, and nubile virgins from the grandest families to pleasure me, instead of that old hag I was stupid enough to take to wife!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and knocked his staff on the altar-slab the fool was using as a hearth.

In the cold dawn that followed, the wife went running to her neighbors to report a miracle: her husband was struck to stone, unmoving yet undead. And, because no other comparable wonder had occurred since the departure of the Quadruple God, all transpired as he had wished. Men set him up on the stump of the great black tower and wrapped their smartest robes about him; they burned expensive delicacies on a brazier, that the scent might waft to his nostrils; and sought beautiful girls that their throats might be cut and their corpses hung before him on gallows stranded with chains-all of this in strict accordance with the ancient custom.

But after a while, when their adulation failed to bring them the favors which they begged, they forgot him and left him helpless to watch the robes fade and the fire die in ashes and the girls’ bodies feed the maggots until nothing was left save the bare white bones.

Likewise, a packman met at Gander’s Well complained in the shade of brooding Yorbeth whose taproot fed his branches with marvelous sap from that unseen spring, and said, “Oh, but my lot is cruelly hard! See you, each year when the snows melt, I come hither and with the proper precautions contrive to pluck fruit and leaves from these long boughs. Such growths no sun ever shone on before! See here, a fuzzy ball that cries in a faint voice when your hand closes on it! And here too: a leaf transparent as crystal, that shows when you peer through it a scene than no man can swear to identifying! Things of this nature are in great demand by wealthy enchanters.

“But what irks me”-and he leaned forward, grimacing-“is a matter of simple injustice. Do those enchanters plod the rutted road to Gander’s Well? Do they risk death or worse to garner the contents of a heavy pack? Why, no! That’s left to me! And what I get I must dispose of for a pittance to strangers who doubtless half the time botch the conjurations they plan to build on what I bring them! Would that I knew beyond a peradventure what marvels can be wrought by using the means I’m making marketable!”

“As you wish,” sighed the traveler, “so be it.” He knocked with his staff on the coping of the well, and went aside to speak of release to Yorbeth-that release which he himself was coming unexpectedly to envy. For there was one sole way to comprehend the applications of what grew on this tall tree, and that was to take Yorbeth’s place within its trunk.

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