John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

But nothing in this was remarkable. Greed, hate, jealousy-these were commonplace, and it was not to be questioned that they should defeat themselves.

Onward again, therefore, and now at last to Erminvale.


In that land of pleasant rolling downs and copses of birch and maple, there stood the village Wantwich, of small white farms parted by tidy hedgerows, radiating out from a central green where of a summer evening the young people would gather with a fiddler and a harpist to dance arid court in bright costumes of pheasant-feathers and fantastical jingling bangles. At one side of this green was a pond of sweet water which the traveler in black had consigned to the charge of the being Horimos, for whom he had conceived a peculiar affection on discovering that this one alone among all known elementals was too lazy to be harmful, desiring chiefly to be left in peace. While others older than themselves danced, the village children would splash in the pond with delighted cries, or paint their bare bodies with streaks of red and blue clay from the bank, proudly writing each other’s names if they knew how. In winter, moreover, it served for them to skate on, and well wrapped in the whole hides of goats they slid across it with double wooden runners strapped to their feet.

Good things were plentiful in Erminvale: creamy milk, fat cheeses, turnips so firm and sweet you might carve a slice raw and eat it with a dressing of salt, berries and nuts of every description, and bearded barley for nutritious bread. Also they brewed fine beer, and on a festival day they would bear onto the green three vast barrels from which anyone, resident or traveler, might swig at will, the first mug always being poured of course to Horimos. Content with that small token of esteem, he slumbered at the bottom of his mud.

All this was what the girl named Viola had known since a child, and from reports she had heard through visitors she felt well satisfied that she’d been born in Wantwich. Where else offered you a better life? Great cities were crowded and full of smoke and stinks; moreover, they had more demanding patrons than Horimos, like Hnua-Threl of Barbizond black with the dried blood of those who had dueled by his altar, or that blind Lady Luck who smiled randomly on the folk of Teq and might tomorrow turn her back for good on the one she had favored yesterday.

She had heard about Teq from a finely-clad rider who had come, a while ago, on a tall roan stallion, twirling long fair mustachios and spilling gold from his scrip like sand.

He had arrived on the first fine evening of spring, when Viola and her betrothed man Leluak joined all the other young people in a giddy whirling dance around the green, and because it behooved one to be courteous to a stranger-even a stranger who complained about the narrowness of his room at their only inn, and passed unflattering remarks concerning Wantwich beer as against the wines of home-and also, she admitted to herself, because all the other girls would be envious, she had accepted his request to join him in demonstrating some newly-fashionable dances from Teq. Instruction took a moment only; she was a skillful dancer, light on slim legs that not even the bleaching of winter had worn to paleness from last summer’s tan. After dancing, they talked.

She learned that his name was Achoreus, and that he served one of the great lords of Teq. She learned further that he thought her beautiful, which she granted, for everyone had always said the same: she had long sleek tresses, large eyes that shifted color ceaselessly like opals, and skin of the smoothness of satin. He declared next that such loveliness was wasted in a backwater hamlet and should be displayed to the nobility and gentry of a great city-meaning Teq. She thanked him for his compliments but explained she was already spoken for. Thereupon he proved that for all his elegant airs he lacked common civility, and tried to fondle her inside her bodice, at which she marched away.

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