Compleat Traveller in Black

BOOK: Compleat Traveller in Black
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The Compleat Traveller in Black

John Brunner

 

ONE

Imprint of Chaos

 

 

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia coelum unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe quen dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles.

—Ovid:
Metamorphoses
I, 5

 

I

 

He had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.

Still, there was nothing to choose as regards rigidity between his particular set of laws and those others. And one rule by which he had very strictly to abide was that at set seasons he should overlook that portion of the All which had been allotted to him as his individual responsibility.

Accordingly, on the day after the conjunction of four significant planets in that vicinity, he set forth on a journey which was to be at once the same as and yet different from those uncountable which had preceded it.

It had been ordained that at this time, unless there were some pressing reason to the contrary, he should tramp along commonplace roads, and with goodwill enough – it was not a constituent of his nature that he should rail against necessity – he so arranged his route that it wound and turned and curved through all those zones where he might be made answerable for events, and ended within a short distance of where it had begun. It ended, to be precise, at the city called Ryovora: that place of all places in his domain where people had their heads screwed on the right way.

He did this for an excellent reason. It was an assurance to him that when he subsequently reviewed his findings the memory of one spot where he might justly feel pleased with his work would be uppermost in recollection.

* * *

Therefore, on a sunny morning when birds were singing and there were few clouds in a sky filled with the scent of flowers, garbed in a cloak of black like any wayfarer’s, save that its blackness was exceptional, he began to trudge along a dusty road towards his first destination.

That was a great louring city upreared around a high tower, which was called by its inhabitants Acromel, the place where honey itself was bitter. It was sometimes a cause of mild astonishment – even to him of the many names and the single nature – that this most contrary of cities should be located within a few hours’ walk of Ryovora. Nonetheless, it was so.

And to be able to state without risk of contradiction that anything whatsoever
was
so
was a gage and earnest of his achievement.

 

Before him the road began to zigzag on the slope of a hill dotted with grey-leaved bushes. A local wind raised dust devils among the bushes and erased the footprints of those who passed by. It was under this hill that the traveller had incarcerated Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, to whom memories of yesterday were hateful. Some small power remained to this elemental, and he perforce employed it to wipe yesterday’s traces away.

He took his staff in hand – it was made of light, curdled with a number of interesting forces – and rapped once on an outcrop of bare rock at the side of the pathway.

“Laprivan!” he cried. “Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes!”

At his call the dust devils ceased their whirling. Resentfully, they sank back to the earth, so that the dust of which they were composed again covered the exposed roots of the bushes. Most folk in the district assumed that the leaves were grey from the dust of passage, or from their nature; it was not so.

Laprivan heaved in his underground prison, and the road shook. Cracks wide enough to swallow a farm cart appeared in its surface. From them, a great voice boomed.

“What do you want with me, today of all days? Have you not had enough, even now, of tormenting me?”

“I do not torment you,” was the calm reply. “It is memory of your past dreadful acts that brings the pain.”

“Leave me be, then,” said the great voice sullenly. “Let me go on wiping away that memory.”

“As you wish, so be it,” the traveller answered, and gestured with his staff. The cracks in the road closed click; the dust devils re-formed; and when he looked back from the crest of the hill his footsteps had already been expunged.

 

The road wound on, empty, towards Acromel. For some distance before it actually reached there, it ran contiguous with the river called Metamorphia, a fact known to rather few, because although it seemed that this was the same river which poured in under the high black battlements of the city, it was not the same – for good and sufficient cause. It was the nature of the river Metamorphia to change the nature of things, and consequently it changed its own after flowing a prescribed number of leagues.

The traveller paused by a wall of stone and mud overlooking the dark stream, and meditatively regarded objects drifting past. Some had been fishes, perhaps; others were detritus of the banks – leaves, branches, rocks. Those which had been rocks continued to float, of course; those which had been of a flotatory nature sank.

He broke a cobble from the crumbling parapet of the wall, and cast it down. The alteration it underwent was not altogether pleasant to witness.

He raised his eyes after a while, and descried a girl on the opposite bank, who had come forward out of a clump of trees while he was lost in contemplation. She was extremely beautiful. Moreover, she had been at no pains to hide the fact, for she was dressed exclusively in her long, lovely hair.

“You also are aware of the nature of this river,” she said after gazing at him for a little.

“I have been advised,” the traveller conceded, “that the nature of this river is to change the nature of things, and consequently it changes its own nature also.”

“Come down with me, then, and bathe in it!”

“Why should you wish your nature changed?” was the reply. “Are you not beautiful?”

“Beautiful I may be!” the girl cried passionately. “But I am without sense!”

“Then you are Lorega of Acromel, and your fame has spread far.”

“I am Lorega, as you say.” She fixed him with honey-colored eyes and shrugged the garb of her hair more closely around her. “And how do men call you?”

“I have many names, but one nature. You may call me Mazda, or anything you please.”

“Do you not even know your own name, then? Do you not have a name that you prefer?”

“The name matters little if the nature does not change.”

She laughed scornfully. “You speak in resounding but empty phrases, Mazda or whoever you may be! If your nature is unchangeable, give demonstration! Let me see you descend into the water!”

“I did not say that,” murmured the traveller peaceably. “I did not say my nature is unchangeable.”

“Then your nature is that of a deceiver, for you made me imagine that you did. Nonetheless, come down and bathe with me!”

“I shall not. And it would be well for you to think on this, Lorega of Acromel: that if you are without sense, your intention to bathe in Metamorphia is also without sense.”

“That is too deep for me,” said Lorega unhappily, and a tear stole down her satiny cheek. “I cannot reason as wise persons do. Therefore let my nature be changed!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveller in a heavy tone, and motioned with his staff. A great lump of the bank detached itself and slumped into the water. Its monstrous splashing doused Lorega, head to foot, and she underwent, as did the earth of the bank the moment it broke the surface, changes.

Thoughtfully and a mite sadly, the traveller turned to continue his journey towards Acromel. Behind him the welkin rang with the miserable cries of what had been Lorega. But he was bound by certain laws. He did not look back.

 

Before the vast black gate of the city, which was a hundred feet high and a hundred feet wide, two tall and brawny men in shabby clothes were fighting with quarterstaves. The traveller leaned on his own staff and watched them batter at one another until they both found themselves too weak to continue, and had to stand panting and glaring while they recovered breath.

“What is the quarrel between you?” asked the traveller then.

“Little man in black, it concerns not you,” grunted the nearer of the pair. “Go your way and leave us be.”

“Wait!” said the other. “Inquire first whether he likewise is bent on the same errand!”

“A good point!” conceded the first, and raised his cudgel menacingly. “Speak, you!”

“First I must know what your errand is,” the traveller pointed out. “How else can I say whether mine is the same or not?”

“A good point!” admitted the second, who had now also approached to threaten him. “Know that I am Ripil of the village called Masergon –”

“And I,” interrupted the first, “am Tolex of the village called Wyve. Last week I set forth from my father’s house, he having six other sons older than I –”

“As did I!” Ripil broke in. “Exactly as did I! Stranger, you’ve registered my name, I trust? You’ll have good cause to remember it one day!”

“All men will!” snapped Tolex with contempt. “They will recall your name to laugh at it, and when mocking boys scrawl it on a wall with charcoal old women will spit on the ground as they hobble past!”

Ripil scowled at him. “Booby! Possessed of unbelievable effrontery! Go your way before it is too late, and the people of this city hang you in chains before the altar!”

“Your errand, though!” cried the traveller, just in time to forestall a renewal of their conflict.

Tolex gave him a huge but humorless grin. “Why, it’s all so simple! This idiot called Ripil came hither thinking to make his fortune, dethrone Duke Vaul, and claim the hand of the beauteous Lorega! As though a dunderheaded lout like him could do more than
dream
of such glories!”

“And your own ambition?”

“Why, I have come to make my fortune and be chosen heir to the duke, whereupon naturally
I
shall be assigned Lorega’s hand!”

On hearing this the traveller laughed aloud. Thinking it was Ripil’s foolishness alone which afforded cause for amusement, Tolex too guffawed, whereat Ripil, his face as dark as storm clouds, caught up his quarterstaff and began to belabor him anew.

The traveller left them to it and went onward through the gate.

 

II

 

At the midpoint of Acromel there stood a temple, crowning the black tower round which its buildings clustered like a single onyx on a pillar of agate. In the said temple, before the red idol of the god Lacrovas-Pellidin-Agshad-Agshad, Duke Vaul yawned behind his hand.

“Take
her,”
he said to the chief priest, nodding his large black-bearded head to his left. The priest bowed to the hard slippery floor and beckoned his minions. In a moment the consort who had shared Vaul’s life for fifteen years, and until that moment had also shared his throne, was hanging from the gallows in front of the altar, her heart’s blood trickling into Agshad’s hands.

And still that was not enough.

Duke Vaul knitted his brows until his forehead creased like a field trenched to grow vegetables, and his thick fingers drummed on the arm of his ebony chair. He stared at the idol.

BOOK: Compleat Traveller in Black
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