John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“One final question,” said the traveler, and gestured with his staff. “I’ve seen these folk tramp weary miles from town to fill yoked pails of water at this well. Is it regarded as especially sweet?”

The man chuckled. “Why, sir, as to drinking straight, not especially,” he returned. “But, see you, the season’s on us to brew ale and beer, and-for what reason I know not-if you brew with water from the Gander’s Well, you remain lively and jolly all evening long, and the morning after your head’s clear and your belly calm. Be sure in the taverns of the town they offer you nothing worse; sometimes they’ll try and fool a stranger with what they will not drink themselves.”

“Thanks for the counsel,” said the traveler in black.

When he was alone, he shook his head sorrowfully. Once on this site Yorbeth had brooded in his guise of a tree, his longest tap-root fed from a miraculous spring. Then that sad greedy fool of a packman…

But he was mortal, which the elemental had not been, and what was left? This stump, yielding tinder for overnight travelers, and a well whose chief renown was for the brewing of beer!

Yet it was not entirely to be wondered at. The news was of a piece with all the rest of what he’d learned during this, the latest of so many journeys undertaken in accordance with the obligations which bound him. Latest? Not impossibly, he was beginning to believe, the last.

For once it had made small difference that this journey was this journey, not the one before or after. In chaos, randomness was so extreme, the very contrasts made for a sense of uniformity. Now there were actual changes: the vanishing of Yorbeth not the greatest.

Back beyond Leppersley, for instance, Farchgrind was a household pet! The people heard him still, but conjured him to entertain their friends, and scoffed when he made his bragging promises. Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes had spent his substance, whatever the nature of it might be, and wearied of his struggle against the past. Footsteps left by those who plodded up his hill endured an hour or more.

And Barbizond had gone with Ryovora, despite Sardhin. The progress of rationality had worn him down-that bright being in his rainbow-gleaming cloud. It was still claimed that a knife from Barbizond would keep its edge forever, but the only man who’d mentioned the notion to the traveler this trip had been a sober farmer in Kanish-Kulya, and he’d employed the same diffident tone as the man just departed, the one who’d been embarrassed at reference to a spirit in the punk which carried fire so well.

That farmer was an earthy man leading a placid life, a little puzzled now and then when one of his fat and happy ploughboys brought some improbable growth to show him: a bunch of grapes that shone like polished metal, a turnip which, split apart, revealed the chambers of a human heart…

But his wine was plentiful and sweet, and there was never a lack of roasts to grace the spits in his kitchen, so he bothered his head not at all with traces of another age. Even the ancestry of his daughter-in-law was a source of kindly jokes around his table. Time was when any good Kanish family like his would have banished Kulya girls to the goose-run, be they never so beautiful-or perhaps honored their beauty by gang-rape if there were half a dozen sufficiently drunken men about.

Now, regal in a gown of peach-colored silk, a Kulya lady nightly shared his dinners, his heir fondly touching her goblet with his own to drink toast after toast to their three handsome boys asleep upstairs. With grandchildren growing apace, who should care when the blade of a harrow caught in the eye-socket of some moldering skull? That war was over; the armistice continued.

Likewise in Teq they made a mock of Lady Luck: her offering was a gobbet of spittle, launched at the floor when one of the company voiced hopes for an over-bold project.

Yet the rule bound him, and the traveler’s nature was not such that he should complain. Forth he went on paths grown unfamiliar, and spoke with many people in many places, as for example in Wocrahin, where once-

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