John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Had he acted decently, inviting her to stroll in the woods with him and find a temporary bed of moss, she would naturally have agreed. It was the custom of Wantwich to receive all strangers as one would one’s friends. But as things were-so she told Leluak when bidding him good night-he seemed to expect that the mere sight of him would make her forget the boy she had grown up with all her life. What foolishness!

Accordingly, all plans for her marriage went ahead in the ancient manner, until at sunset the day before the ceremony her father, her mother, her two sisters and her aunt equipped her in the prescribed fashion for a night she had to pass alone, during which she must visit each in turn of five high peaks enclosing Erminvale and there plant five seeds: an apple, a sloe, a cob, an acorn and a grain of barley.

With a leather wallet containing bread and cheese, a flask of water, and a torch of sweet-scented juniper, and followed by the cries of well-wishers, she set forth into the gathering dusk.

The tramp was a long one, and tricky in the dark, but she had wandered through Erminvale since she was old enough to be allowed out of sight of her mother, and though she must clamber up rocky slopes and thread her way through thickets where night-birds hooted and chattered, she gained each peak in turn with no worse injury than thorn-scratches on her calves. As dawn began to pale the sky, she set in place the final seed, the barley-grain, and watered it from her body to give it a healthy start in life. Then, singing, she turned back, weary but excited, on the road to her home. By about noon she would be safe in Leluak’s embrace, and the feasting and merry-making would begin.

Still a mile off, however, she started to sense that something was amiss. Smoke drifted to her on the breeze, but it lacked the rich scent of baking which she had expected. A little closer, and she wondered why there was no shrill music audible, for no one had ever been able to prevent Fiddler Jarge from striking up directly his instrument was tuned, whether or no the bride had come back from the hills.

Worst of all, at the Meeting Rock that marked the last bend in the road, the huge granite slab by which the groom traditionally took the hand of his bride to lead her into Wantwich, there was no sign of Leluak.

She broke into a run, terrified, and rounded the rock. Instantly she saw the furthest outlying house, that of the Remban family, which she remembered seeing built when she was a toddler, and almost fainted with the shock. Its fine clean walls were smeared with a grime of smoke, its gate was broken, and the Rembans’ finest plough-ox lay bellowing in a pool of blood.

And there beyond: the Harring house afire-source of the smoke she’d smelled! Her own home with the shutters ripped off their hinges, the front door battered down with an axe from the kindling-pile! Leluak’s, unmarked, but the door ajar, and no one within when she shouted through!

Wildly she raced onward to the village green, and there was Jarge’s fiddle broken on the ground. The beer-barrels set out for the wedding had been drained. Near them was a patch of scorched grass she could not account for, and all the water of the pond was fouled with the blood of the ducks which daily had quacked there.

Crouched in her chair, from which for longer than Viola could recall she had watched and grinned at the weddings she had witnessed: the only remaining villager of Wantwich, Granny Anderland, who was in fact a great-great-grandmother, toothless and senile.

“Granny!” shrieked Viola. “What happened?”

But all that Granny Anderland could do-all that she had ever been able to do since Viola was a baby- was to expose her gums in a silly grin and rock back and forth on her chair.

Helpless, Viola screamed Leluak’s name till she was hoarse, but after that she collapsed from weariness and horror, and that was how the traveler found her when he chanced that way.

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