John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Dame Rosa, in her palanquin borne between two white female donkeys, passed the corner on which stood the house formerly owned by Dame Seulte, and drew aside the curtains to peer curiously upward. Sure enough, as her maid had declared, from the window of the room in which Seulte had been accustomed to conduct her experiments, a licking tongue of greasy black smoke had smeared the wall.

She clucked with her tongue. Poor Seulte! Had she but waited another day, she might have enjoyed the fruit of her efforts. That at least was Dame Rosa’s belief; she trusted the promise the one in black had made, and looked forward with impatience to the earliest moment she could closet herself with her books and apparatus and rehearse with improvements the most relevant of her formulae.

Her family had in the past been counted among the most lascivious of Ys, and excessive indulgence by its womenfolk in the pleasures of the bed had often threatened to overpopulate the resources of their not inconsiderable estates. Accordingly there was a cellar where surplus children had for generations been discreetly disposed of, not by crude and brutal means but by consigning the problem of their nourishment to the fates. She entered this cellar by a bronze door, which she locked with a heavy key, and passed between rows of wooden stalls in each of which a set of rat-gnawed bones lay on foul straw, gyves about one ankle.

She had chosen this place after much thought. Surely, she reasoned, the point of departure to eternity of so many spirits must be imbued with a peculiar potency!

Her method of working involved feathers, four liquids of which the least noxious was fresh blood, and long silent concentration while seated on a stool of unique design with no other covering for her ample frame than her age-sparse hair could afford. Briskly she carried out the introductory rites; then she sat down and closed her eyes, shivering from excitement and not from cold.

She had, the books stated, to keep her eyes shut until she had completed the recital of a cantrip that lasted eight whole pages in minuscule script. There were two pages to go when she heard the first rustlings and clicketings behind her. There was one page to go when the first touch came on her fleshy thigh. Desperately wanting to know what marvels her work had brought about, she raced through the last page, and on the concluding word came the first bite.

Thirty starving children mad with hunger, their teeth as keen as any rat’s, left gnaw-marks on her bones too.

Bardolus trembled as he piled many curious ingredients high on the charcoal-filled brazier before his mirror. He had chosen the mirror spell out of those known to him because he had, after all, come closest to success with it before-even if he had been taken aback to see a manifestation in the unconstrained mirrors of the Hall of State.

He wished he could find the courage to abandon the entire project, but fear and conceit combined to drive him on. He was beside himself with jealousy to think that a slip of a girl like Meleagra–not to mention that coarse peasant type d’Icque, or stupid complacent Dame Faussein!-had mastered magical powers in such a matter-of-fact fashion, while he still cried out in terror at the consequences of his own thaumaturgy.

He struck a light and ignited the pile. Saturated with the fat of a sow that had devoured her own farrow, it blazed up and gave off a choking smoke that veiled the mirror until it was all consumed.

Then the air cleared, and in the mirror he found a face he knew: that of his mother, who was dead.

“My son Bardolus,” she said with fawning sweetness. “Look behind you! There is an oaken cupboard which you have known since you were a child. Press the last knob in the carved design, and a secret drawer will open. In the drawer is that which gave me power over your father. Take it as my gift.”

The image faded. A little puzzled, Bardolus hesitated before doing as directed. He remembered his father only dimly; he had been a strange man, alternating between hysterical gaiety and depression so deep he would sit by the hour contemplating a knife or a dish of poison, plucking up the courage to take his own life.

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