John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

It would be politic, the traveler reasoned, to behold the dawn.

Therefore, dissolving one of the forces that curdled the light-beams of his staff, he picked his way across the hut’s floor silently, abandoning the thick warm fleece he’d been allotted for a coverlet. Outside, the last hour of the night was oppressive with mephitic stench, as though every home in the valley had kept a fire ablaze all night against the mantle of blackness, and all their smokes had come together in a foul miasma. Even the blade of light from his staff was foreshortened a pace or two ahead of his toes.

The trade of lamp-maker hereabouts must indeed be a profitable pursuit.

What this blackness was not was easy to define. It wasn’t smoke, although much was now mingled in it. It was not fog, clammy and opaque, yet cleanly, being drops of fine-divided water. It was not cloud, which is of the same substance. It was-well, it was an inverse of brightness.

When dawn came, belatedly by the traveler’s calculation, it behaved moreover in a peculiar fashion. Rather than thinning and being dispelled, as night ought to be by the rising sun, it drew in on itself, lying bare yard by yard the countryside, as though one could make thick black tar flow uphill. And uphill was its direction, out of the vale and towards the ragged pinnacles of Cleftor Heights. There, at some point almost beyond the traveler’s range of vision, it gathered itself as it were into a ball, into a spiraling cone, into a wisp… and nothing.

Yet it had left, over every inch of ground where it had lain, a brooding aura of dismal foreboding.

Going by ordinary ways, he later came on some children turned out of the house to play, who were listlessly tossing pebbles at a target scratched on a tree-bole, and seemingly cared little whether they hit it or not; at least, none among them was keeping score.

“Who rules these lands?” the traveler inquired, and one of them answered.

“I think his name is Garch, sir. Would you that I go home and ask my mother? She would know.”

“Thank you; the name’s enough,” the traveler said.


At the full moon Garch Thegn of Cleftor Heights held certain audiences that differed markedly from the common run of his daily business. One day before the full, he spoke to no one, but locked himself away in private rooms to pore over great tomes and crumbling scrolls; one day after, it was never sure-even to his chief counselors and stewards-whether he would be fit to resume his normal court, in his great hall tiled with chrysoberyl slabs.

Yet withal his was a domain envied far and wide in this country; by all criteria it was improbable. Though most of it was rocky and its soil was thin, its kine were famed for their fatness and the richness of their milk. Though their roots were shallow, often planted in mere crevices, never a hedge but yielded nuts and fruit to be preserved by boiling down in honey. Though it was unpopulous, with villages few and far between, its folk were tall and strong and raised healthy children; what was more, garments elsewhere reserved to the grandest ladies might here be seen gracing a farmer’s wife driving her trap to market, or her daughter on a high-day bound for the wife-taking dance. Velvet and suede, samite and purple plush, were donned as casually as homespun, and only at the very fringes of the Garch estates-as for example hard by Rotten Tor-did families lack for silver spoons and porcelain dishes to entertain company at table.

Paradoxically, with all this the folk of the district were misliked. It was said they were overly cunning; it was said that doing business with them was like trying to stand an eel on its tail. It was further hinted that it was best not to let your daughter marry one, be he never so prosperous, for in a short while her only care for her family would be to take what advantage of them she might, and she’d have become like her neighbors, purse-mouthed, hard-eyed, and fond of coin.

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