“You may prefer to close your eyes now,” the traveler said didactically, and added, “Horimos! Speak! And be quick-the sooner you tell me what I want to know, the sooner you may sink back into your ooze. What’s become of all the people from this village?”
“Been taken away,” Horimos mumbled. It was not exactly a mouth he used to shape the words-but then, like all elementals, his physical form was somewhat arbitrary.
“How and by whom?” The traveler rapped the bank impatiently with his staff.
“Army marched in this morning,” Horimos sighed. “Went around the village, drove everybody to the green-most of them were there already anyhow. Set up a forge there where the grass is blackened, welded fetters for everyone on a chain. Killed some ducks and hens for their dinner, drank the beer in the barrels, herded the villagers away. Good riddance, say I-never had a moment’s peace since you put me here, what with fiddling and dancing and swimming and skating and all the rest of it!”
“Whose was the army? What colors did they fly?”
“Should I know who bears a flag of silver, red and gold?”
The traveler clamped his fingers tighter on his staff.
“And you made no attempt to intervene?”
“Told you-glad to see the back of them.” Horimos made the whole surface of the pond yawn in a colossal expression of weariness. “And but for you I’d have enjoyed a decent sleep for a while, now I’m alone!”
“For your idleness,” said the traveler softly, “I decree that until the folk of Wantwich are restored to their homes, you shall itch so much you can enjoy no rest. Begone with you. Hope that the matter is speedily set to rights.”
“You argue with me?”
Horimos declined. When once again he had subsided to the bottom of his pond, the water was no longer pellucid and still as before, but roiled continually without a breeze to stir it.
“Who are you?” Viola whispered. “I’d always thought Horimos was-was…”
“Was imaginary?” The traveler chuckled. “Not exactly. But his worst fault is mere laziness, and compared to what faults one finds elsewhere it’s far from the grossest of shortcomings…. As for my own identity: you may call me Mazda, or what you will. I have many names, and only one nature.”
He waited to see whether the information, which he gave only to those who directly demanded it, meant anything to her. Interestingly, he discovered that it did, for on the instant a blend of hope and awe transfigured her pretty face.
But then he took a second look, and his heart sank. For, in along with the rest, he now detected the betraying signs of selfishness.
“Is it true, then,” she cried fiercely, “that I can require of you my heart’s desire?”
“Think well if you do so!” the traveler warned, raising his staff. “Only you can know what’s in your secret mind! Reflect and ponder!”
“I don’t have to,” she said with terrible directness. “I want to be reunited with my man!”
The traveler sighed, but as always was resigned to the inexorable course of events. “As you wish, so be it,” he replied.
“What shall I do?” Viola whispered, suddenly overcome with a sense of the finality of her request.
“No more than wait? Wait here?” She turned frantically, surveying the ravished homes, the slaughtered livestock, the smoke that still drifted over the burning house. “But-”
And when she looked again for the traveler in black, he was gone.
A little after, when the sun was still high in the sky, there were clopping noises on the road by which the army had arrived, and she stirred from her torpor and made to flee. But the horseman easily ran her down, bowing from his saddle to sweep her off her feet and park her on the withers of his steed, laughing at her vain attempts to break away.
“I missed you when they rounded up the rest of them,” said Achoreus of Teq. “I couldn’t forget a lovely face like yours. Even less can I forget an insult like the one you offered me when first I came here. So I dawdled, thinking you’d be back eventually, and here you are. Not for long, though! You’re going to rejoin your family and friends, and that country bumpkin you preferred to me!”