John Brunner – The Traveler in Black


He barely checked his pace as he entered Wantwich, along another road than that which Viola had followed on her return from the five peaks. But his expression grew sterner with every step he took, until when finally he could survey the full measure of the calamity from the canter of the green his brow was dark as a thundercloud.

His footsteps were too soft upon the sward for the weeping girl to hear them through her sobs, and it was plain that the old woman near her either had been so shocked as to have lost her reason, or was far too senile to understand the world. Accordingly he addressed the girl first.

At the sound of his voice she cringed away, her face wet with tears displaying a mask of terror. But there was little in the appearance of this small man leaning on a staff to suggest that he could be connected with the rape of Wantwich. And, for all that he looked angry beyond description, it did not seem that that anger was directed at her.

“Who are you, child?” the traveler inquired.

“My-my name is Viola, sir,” the girl forced out.

“And what has happened here today?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” Wringing her hands, Viola rose. “Why should anyone want to do this to us? Monsters of some kind must have done it-devils!”

“Well, there are few such creatures left hereabouts,” the traveler murmured. “More likely it will have been men, if one can dignify them with that name. Were you away from the village?”

“I was to be married today!” Viola choked.

“I see. Therefore you were walking the five peaks and planting seeds.”

“You-you’re acquainted with our customs, sir?” Viola was regaining control of herself, able to mop away her blinding tears and look more clearly at the newcomer. “Yet I don’t remember that I saw you here before.”

“This is not the first time I’ve been to Wantwich,” the traveler said, refraining from any reference to the number or date of his earlier visits. “But, to pursue the important matter: did this old lady witness what occurred?”

“If she did, she won’t be able to describe it,” Viola said dully. “She has been as you see her for many years. She likes to be talked to, nods and sometimes giggles, but beyond that…” She gave a hopeless shrug.

“I see. In that case we must resort to other means to determine what went on. Girl, are you capable of being brave?”

She stared at him doubtfully. “Sir,” she said at length, “if you can do anything to help get back my man, and right the wrong that’s been done to these good people, I’ll be as brave as you require of me.” Her fingers curled over to drive her nails cruelly into her palms. “Oh, that something could be done! I’ve no notion what-but something must be possible!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and took her hand. He led her across the green, past the patch of grass scorched black-at which she cast a puzzled glance-and to the very rim of the sweetwater pond.

“Stand firm,” he commanded. “Do not be afraid of what you see.”

“I-I don’t understand!”

“Better for you that you should not,” the traveler muttered, and thrust his staff into the water. He dissolved one of the forces bonding the light of which it was composed, and a shaft of brilliance lanced downward to the bottom.

“Horimos!” he cried. “Horimos!”

The girl’s eyes grew round with wonder, and then her mouth also, with dismay. For the water heaved and bubbled sluggishly as pitch, and from the plopping explosions a thick voice seemed to take form, uttering words.

“Le-e-eave me-e a-a-lo-o-one…”

“Horimos!” rapped the traveler. “Stir yourself– you’ve slumbered eons in that soft bed of mud! Shall I remove you to Kanish-Kulya, make you share the pit of that volcano with Fegrim?”

A noise between a grumble and a scream.

“Yes, he’d be a restless companion for you, wouldn’t he?” the traveler rasped. “Up! Up! I desire speech with you!”

Beside him Viola had fallen to her knees, all color vanished from her cheeks. Too petrified even to blink, she saw the water in which she had so often bathed rise into tumult-yet absurdly slowly, as though time had been extended to double length. More bubbles burst, and she could watch their surface part; waves and ripples crossed the pond so slowly, one would have thought to push them into new directions without wetting one’s palm.

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