John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

He blew at the candle closest him upon the great table, and with the extinction of its flame there was no such person as Meleagra-never had been-never could be.


Long hours Lord Vengis had paced in the high room above the Hall of State, pondering the day’s events and screwing himself to the point where he would again begin his conjurations. The day wasted; shadows lengthened; evening cold began to permeate the building, and he called for fire.

He was afraid.

He had seen in the eyes of the traveler in black a warning which his pride forbade him to heed; he was ashamed because he was afraid, yet shame could not break fear’s grip. He wished to do as his colleagues were doing-what if he alone remained untalented in sorcery when blockheads like Bardolus or half-grown wenches like Vivette boasted powers unnamable?

Nonetheless, he dithered and delayed, and had not yet cast a rune nor recited the first line of a single formula when the sergeant of the guard came stiffly to report a disturbance in the town.

“Disturbance?” Vengis rapped. “Fool, be precise! What do you mean?”

“Why, sir”-and the sergeant rubbed his chin dolefully-“some hours agone there were complaints of desecration in the graveyard by the cathedral, the curate saying that a vault was open and the bones removed. But seeing as how we’ve had call for similar extraordinary materials that your lordship required, I decided best not to say anything. Now, though, the affair has ramified. For example, the side wall of the building here is cracked where they entombed alive a woman named Igraine-you’ve seen the plaque-accused of commerce with a familiar spirit in the guise of a cat…”

From the street below came a howl as of maddened beasts, and the sergeant flinched visibly. But he continued in his best official manner.

“Then, your lordship, at dusk reports came of strangers in the city, and we called out the patrols for fear of infiltration by some jealous invader. Myself, I’ve stopped twenty-one persons, and all spoke with the accent of our city and gave names concordant with our nomenclature. But it seems I’ve seen such names on gravestones before nowsome, indeed, earlier today when I answered the complaint at the cathedral. And what brings me in to you, begging your indulgence, is the curious business of the man and the two wives.”

“What’s that?” whispered Vengis, sweat pearling his face.

“Well, sir, there was this man, one whom I’d challenged, walking with a girl of fifteen-odd. Comes up from nowhere a woman aged as he was-forty, maybe- and says she is his wife and what’s this hussy doing with her husband? So then the little girl says they were married legally and then there follows screaming of insults and hair-pulling and at the last we must clap ’em in the jail to cool their heels. Which is-uh-difficult. For every cell, they promise me, is full, and that’s more than I can understand. This morning the turnkey’s records say there were one hundred and one places vacant for new prisoners.”

Vengis’s voice had failed him. He chewed his nails and stared with burning eyes at the sergeant.

“What shall I do, your lordship?” the man finally asked.

“I-I…” Vengis spun around and strode to a window overlooking the main square. He thrust the casement open and leaned out. By the last dim light of the dying day he could see a myriad people gathering. Some were colorful and substantial, but these were few. Most were grey as the stones they trod, arid trailed curious wispy streamers behind them, like cobwebs. But all alike exhibited an air of bewilderment, as though they were lost in the mazes of time and eternity, and could not find a way back to the present moment.

Vengis began to babble incoherently.

There came a thundering knock at the door of the room where they were, and a cavernous groaning voice said, “Open! Open in the name of the Lord of Ys!”

Shrugging, the sergeant made to obey, but Vengis ran after him, clawing at his arm. “Don’t! Don’t let them in!” he wailed.

“But, your lordship,” said the sergeant firmly, “it is in your name that he seeks entry, so it must be a matter of importance. Besides, with your permission, I’m expecting a report from my patrols.”

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