John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“No, sir,” said the boy. His voice and eyes were older than his years. “I seek poisons to give to my mother; she rules me unkindly and will not let me do whatever I like.”

He sighed enormously. “Ah, that I might recognize instanter what may be relied on to entrain death!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and went on, leaving the boy weeping because he realized: no matter what diet is chosen, sooner or later death ensues.

Thus, pretty much as might have been expected, the way of the traveler wound on, until that night which overtook him deeper than other nights on the flank of Rotten Tor, in which he discovered why the honest working-man from Gander’s Well had carefully sought tinder to bear on a journey a mere hour in length.

And why the tinder had to be of a tree which once had drunk a marvelous spring far underground.

And also one thing far more important: why, when all about him he saw the triumph of the homely commonplace virtues, the prevalence only of the everyday vices such as laziness and greed-earnest, if any were to be had, of the impending conclusion of his task-he first should learn the flavor of that bitter new edge acquired by apprehension, which turns it into something cruder.



Truly this was not like an ordinary night! Though she was wrapped in a good plaid shawl, and had moreover mittens to her hands, the woman was dismayed by the solidity of the blackness, by the chill that bit from it through garments never so well-woven, to the ultimate marrow. Behind her the child Nelva, whom she had not dared to leave at home, was too weary-or too cold- even to whimper.

At least, though, far ahead there gleamed one spark: the mark of her destination.

Though going back…

She shivered so violently her teeth chattered. It was something to be faced, the return, and couldn’t be helped. Bowing her head, although there was no apparent wind, she clung to her daughter’s hand and hurried on.

Lights gleamed fantastical the length of the little shop. Whoever had suffered by the coming of these unseasonable black nights to the Clef tor Fells, it wasn’t Master Buldebrime who owned the place. Lamps shone on the adze-shapen counter facing the door that admitted clients from the street, and on all the pale pine planks doing the duty of shelves which lined the room wherever there was solid wall. There was even a lit lamp hung on that other door, of boards nailed to a saltire frame, giving access to the living-quarters of the house.

Certain of these lamps burned candles of good tallow, and more of rank stale fat. Some burned wicks floating in clear sweet oil, but these were few, and fewest of all that were alight this evening were the ones which fed on exotic aromatic distillations and dispersed into the air not only a luminance slightly tinged with sapphire-blue but also a delightful perfume. These last had reservoirs to match their content: fine-wrought in alabaster, amethyst and orichalcum.

Cold on the street it might be, but shutters had boarded in the shop’s two streetward windows long before, so well sealed at their edges by strips of wetted leather that the air within was past being only warm. Now it was hot with all those flames entrapped by clear glass chimneys, or tinted crystal globes, or shields of thin-pared horn. The delicate scent of the most costly of them faded into a stench of vaporized fat; on their rich diet, the flames looked almost starved.

Nonetheless, even now, their glimmering colors made the coarse roof of overarching beams look like a mine of dismal coal illumined unexpectedly by an irrupting river that had washed a shaft of sunshine underground and shown that there were also jewels in the rock.

On the counter a tall time-candle, bright red wax crossed at thumb-joint intervals by bands of black, told that the hours of trading for today were nearly done.

Abruptly and in unison the flames bowed, like heads of barley in a field assaulted by a storm, and in from the street dived the woman, her clogs announcing her arrival on the floor-flags. Forgetful on the instant of her weariness and chill, the toddler Nelva at her skirts exclaimed with ooh! and aah! at seeing this wonderland of colored light. A rush of burnt-wax stink took to the outdoors like a dying man’s gasp, and there was a cry from beyond the inner wall: “I come apace!”

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