John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

He redoubled them for fluency and loudness when, on spotting the black-clad figure by the track, the leading man-at-arms dropped his spear to an attack position and cried, “Halt!” The palfrey obeyed with extraordinary promptness, and thereby almost spilled his rider to the road.

“Good morrow,” said the traveler mildly. “Sir, would you command your man to put up that over-eager point? It’s aligned upon a portion of my carcass that I am anxious to preserve intact.”

“Do so,” the Shebya commanded, and pulled a face. “Forgive him,” he continued, doffing his cap. “But we’re collectively upset, I’d have you know, and very edgy, as it were. We’ve done so poorly on our errand to this famous thegn-of which we had, I must admit, high hopes.”

“The saddles of your mules seem light enough,” the traveler murmured.

“Oh, ordinary pack-goods one can dispose of anywhere,” the Shebya shrugged. His keen eyes were fixed on the curious staff the traveler held, and one could almost hear the logical, though erroneous, deductions he was making. “But… Well, sir, might I hazard a guess that you too are bound to call on Garch?”

“That possibility,” the traveler conceded, “should not be entirely ruled out.”

“I thought so!” the other exclaimed, leaning forward on his palfrey’s withers. “Might I further suggest that you would welcome information concerning the thegn’s alleged willingness to purchase-ah-intangibles and other rare items at a respectable price?”

“It would be rash to deny,” the traveler said, “that I have heard reference to some such habit of his.”

“Then, sir, save your trouble. Turn about, and escape the oncoming night – for, truly, the nights they have hereabout are not of the common cosy kind. The tales you’ve likely heard are arrant nonsense.”

“Nonsense, you say?”

“Yes indeed!” The Shebya grew confidential, lowering his tone. “Why, did I not bring him an object virtually beyond price? And did I not in the upshot have to peddle it door to door, for use in some lousy household enchantment instead of in the grand ceremonials of an adept? That it should keep company with pollywogs and chicken-blood-faugh! I ask you! Would not dragon-spawn have been meeter?”

“And was the article efficacious?” the traveler asked, hiding a smile.

The Shebya spread his hands. “Sir, that is not for me to determine. Suffice it to say that tomorrow will tell; for the sake of insurance, as it were, against the risk that the purchaser may prove inadequately skilled in conjuration to extract maximum benefit from the acquisition, I suppose to be some distance hence.” His mask of annoyance, willy-nilly, gave place to a grin; it was granted by everyone that, rogues though the Shebyas might be, they were at least engaging rogues.

“Howbeit,” he appended, “take my advice. Don’t go to Garch expecting to sell him remarkable and unique artifacts or data at such price as will ensure comfort to your old age. Apart from all else, the mansion is in a turmoil. Someone, so to speak, would appear to have laden the thegn’s codpiece with live ants, and he gibbers like a man distraught, ordering all who displease him to be shortened by the head without appeal. Another excellent reason for departure-which, sir, if you will forgive the briefness of this conversation, inclines me forthwith to resume my journey.”

After he and his companions had gone, the traveler remained. The air thickened still further. It felt almost resistant to the limbs, like milk turned with an admixture of rennet. Lost on a high outcrop, a kid bleated hopelessly for its nanny. Chill that one might have mistaken for agonizing frost laid a tight hold on the land, yet no pools crisped with ice. The traveler frowned and waited longer still.

Over the high tower of the mansion, at last, the coffin-black of night started to appear: solid-seeming blotches on the sky. At roughly the same time, there were noises to be heard along the road again, coming from the direction opposite to that which the Shebya and his troupe had taken. Into sight came a party of hurrying men on horseback, full-armed, glancing apprehensively at the gathering dark. Some had equipped themselves with torches, and kept making motions towards their flint and steel.

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