John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Like the one which overtook Dame Seulte?”

“Ah… Well, yes, I suppose!”

“And is this the common desire of you all?” asked the traveler with very great sadness, casting his gaze to the furthest corners of the company..

“Aye!” came the chorus of replies.

“As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.” And he departed.


Where he went, none of them saw. He passed from among them swiftly as thought, silently as shadows, and they had no more stomach for their consultations since he had spoken.

Yet they felt a lightness, a sense of promise, as they called the servants to unbar the doors and made their several ways towards their homes. The streets by which they passed seemed more crowded than of late, and not a few of them had the impression that they recognized among the throng a familiar face, a known gait, or a garment of distinctive cut. However, such fancies were of a piece with the general mood, and served only to heighten the taut anticipation they had brought away from the Hall of State.

“What think you of Dame Seulte’s fate?” said the Lady Vivette to her companion-who was also her brother, but they had judged that an advantage in making their earlier experiments. She spoke as their carriage creaked and jolted into the courtyard of their ancestral home, a short ride only from the Hall of State; behind, the hinges of the gates complained of rust and lack of oil when the retainers forced them to.

“I think she was unwise,” her brother said. His name was Ormond to the world, but recently he had adopted another during a midnight ritual, and Vivette knew what it was and held some power over him in consequence.

“Do you believe we have been gifted by this-this personage?” Vivette inquired. “I have a feeling myself that perhaps we have.”

Ormond shrugged. “We can but put it to the test. Shall we now, or wait until after dinner?”

“Now!” Vivette said positively.

So, duly, they made their preparations: putting on fantastical garments which contained unexpected lacunae, and over these various organic items relinquished by their original owners, such as a necklace of children’s eyes embedded in glass for Vivette and a mask made from a horse’s head for Ormond. Arrayed, they repaired to a room in the highest tower of their mansion, where by custom deceased heads of their family had been laid in state for a day and a night before burial since untold generations ago.

There, in a pentacle bounded by four braziers and a pot of wax boiling over a lamp, they indulged in some not unpleasurable pastimes, taking care to recite continually turn and turn about a series of impressive cantrips. The room darkened as they went on, and great excitement almost interrupted their concentration, but they stuck at it, and…

“Look!” whispered Vivette, and pointed to the catafalque removed to a corner of the room. Under the black velvet draperies a form was lying-that of a man armed and armored.

“Why! Just so, in the picture downstairs, did Honorius our great-grandfather lie when he was awaiting burial!” Ormond snapped, and leapt to his feet to pull back the velvet.

Impassive, a steel visor confronted them. Vivette eased it open, and in the dark interior of the helmet eyes gleamed and a rush of foetid breath escaped. Stiffly, with effort, the occupant of the armor arose from the catafalque.

“Come, my descendants, let me kiss you both,” said a rusty voice, and iron arms resistlessly encircled them, though they struggled to get away. “What, have you no affection to your own kinsman?”

There was a hollow hideous chuckle as the embrace grew tighter; the necklace of eyes cracked, like a handful of cobnuts, the horse-mask went thudding to the floor, and spittle-wet lips clamped first on one mouth, then the other.

Both fainted.

When they recovered, the figure in armor was gone, but where it had taken shape on the catafalque lay a manuscript book in bindings of leather and brass, open to the page recording the death of Honorius from a contagious fever against which no medicine was of use, in the three-and-thirtieth year of his age.

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