John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Also there was a book.

Following with care the instructions it contained, she danced around her boudoir keening, crawled twice backwards across the floor with a knife between her teeth, and at last cut her forearm and let three drops of her blood fall on the carpet. When she looked for them the stains had vanished.

Nothing else happened in the room. She had expected that; humming, she called her maids back to change her gown for something more conventional and went down to the dining-hall where supper was to be served.

Already as she approached it she could hear the clatter of dishes, the clamor of conversation. That boded a great company. She hurried the last few steps and threw open the door.

Every place at her great table-and there were thirty-six-was taken; the servants had pressed into use benches from the kitchen, too, and the sideboards and the serving-tables were alike packed with a hungry horde. For all the scullions and maids could do, the food, brought on trolleys because there was more of it than a man could lift, disappeared within instants of being set down, and still the howl went up for more. The bread had gone, the meat, the wine; now it was boiled turnips and hedge-greens, broth of bones and barley, and beer much too new to serve by ordinary.

Yet that was not all. Behind, between, among those who ate went others looting. The fine brocade drapes had been torn down to clothe naked bodies, leather-backed chairs stripped to afford protection to sore feet, tapestries turned to cloaks and ponchos. One wild-eyed woman, lacking anything else, had smeared herself with gravy to break up the maggot pallidity of her skin.

Meleagra stood in the doorway for a long heartbeat of time before the chief steward caught sight of her and came running to beg her help.

“Mistress, what shall we do? They are in every room -five hundred of them at the least count! And all, all have claimed the right to what you have, for they say they are your ancestors and this is their home too!”

“My ancestors?” whispered Meleagra. Her eyes, drawn as by a magnet, went to him who had taken her seat at the head of the table, and a silence overcame the entire company.

The one at whom she gazed was a cross-eyed, ill-favored fellow in a dirty doublet, unshaven and with black around his nails. He gave her a smile that displayed gapped yellow teeth, and spoke in a soft voice with a peasant’s accent.

“Ah, Meleagra, sure and you set a fine table! This meal which you account an everyday affair matches the grandest feasts we held in times gone by!”

“Who-who are you?” Meleagra choked out.

“You know me not?” The fellow cocked an eyebrow traversed by a scar. “Why, Damien, of course, who built the house and founded the family’s fortune in the earliest age of Ys. And. at my side Cosimo, my firstborn here-though I had by-blows aplenty in another town! And Syriax his wife and their children Ruslan, Roland and Igraine; and their children Mark, Valetta, Corin, Ludwig, Matthaus, Letty, Seamus; theirs, Orlando, Hugo, Dianne, twins Nathaniel and Enoch-”

“Stop! Stop!” Meleagra put her hands to her temples; the room seemed to be spinning, and from every side gross faces leered at her, or thin drawn faces gazed with stony regard, or dull faces moped, or…

“There is no more food!” the steward shouted. “We have killed all the poultry, the larder’s bare, the wine-casks are drained, the last carp is gone from the pond, the beer-barrels are exhausted and even the well is dry!”

“You’ve done this to me?” Meleagra whispered to her remotest ancestor Damien. “But I gave you breath and life, and this new opportunity-I invited you here!”

“You?” said Damien with contempt. “Is that the only act of importance you can boast of? Did we your ancestors not build this house, this city, its fair avenues and fine harbors and full stores? Have you done nothing save parasitize upon our leavings? I read in your eyes that that is so! Here we are alive, who died before you saw the light-do you still call yourself the mistress of this house? Hah! You are a thing not worth the thinking of, less than dust, for dust can be seen to dance in sunbeams. You are the flame of a candle guttering out. So-poof!”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80

Categories: John Brunner