John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Watching from deep shadow, the traveler in black repressed a sigh. He hated these hole-in-corner enchanters, not merely because they were victims of the same paradox that had misled their more distinguished predecessors-desiring to control chaos for the sake of the power to be had from it, yet anxious not to destroy it by exerting over-much control-but also because he’d found them ignorant, discourteous and casual. Buldebrime seemed typical of many.

He did not attempt to make himself known. Had Buldebrime been as adept as he presumably liked to think he was, he would not have needed to be told there was a Presence in the room.

He set out what was requisite for the sorcery he intended to undertake, bar one crucial item: a single candle. And then, in the instant before he discovered that the candle was not where he thought it was, there came a thunderous hammering from the entrance to the shop, followed by a loud cry.

“Buldebrime! Buldebrime! Open in the name of Garch Tegn of Cleftor Heights!”

The traveler gave a nod and took his leave.


There was a certain spot, a fair sward set with rocks flat-topped as though designed expressly to be sat upon, commanding a fine view of the thegn’s mansion and within lazy strolling distance of the villages nearest thereto. In any other community it might safely have been predicted that on fine clear evenings such as this local folk would often congregate here, bringing provender and beer and possibly a tabor and some fifes, to enjoy the pleasant outlook and reflect on their luck in serving so notably able a ruler.

Here, however, the safe prediction was that by late afternoon all who did not have utterly unavoidable business would have retreated to their homes, bolting and shuttering them against the onset of that unnatural night which soaked up starlight and bit at the bones with vicious teeth.

So indeed the case proved. The last herds were driven back to their byres, the last flocks were folded, long before the sun had touched the divided peaks of the Cleft Tor. As the shadows lengthened, the air grew thick, and the aura which had infected the whole day curdled into a foretaste of the dark to come.

Seated alongside a curving track, his staff across his knees, the traveler gazed towards the thegn’s mansion. It was a handsome, if uninspired, edifice. Girdling it in the place of a curteyn-wall there were low-roofed outbuildings perhaps a hundred paces by two hundred, made of grey stone, interrupted by a gate and speckled with windows. These enclosed a courtyard above ground-level, whose cobbled surface concealed subterranean dungeons and other hidden chambers, and from the center of this yard upreared a tower, or rather frustrum, its sloping sides approximating the base of a cone. There were the private quarters of the thegn. Terminating its truncated top, there was a winch-house where by shifts a score or so of muscular deaf-mutes waited the signal to save Garch the effort of climbing stairs, by hauling on ropes to lift a kind of palankeen steadied by greased poles and capable of being halted at any floor of the tower.

As the traveler studied this mansion, he saw servants come to set out torches by the gate, though there was still considerable sun-time left in the day.

Eventually there came in sight around the curve of the road a sort of small procession. It began with a striding man-at-arms, suspiciously staring this way and that. It continued with a personage in the garb of a Shebya: blue cap, green coat, black boots and silver spurs. He rode astride a palfrey. Then came a girl attired in pink as a page, but bosomed too heavily for there to be much chance of mistaking her sex, leading the first of a pair of pack-mules whose wooden saddles were half empty, and lastly another man-at-arms leading the second mule. Such was a common spectacle in any well-governed land; the Shebyas were the greatest traders of the age, and even the poorest possessed at least a couple of beasts and an attendant.

The leader of this party, however, was clearly not overjoyed with whatever business he’d most recently conducted. He frowned as he rode, and not infrequently uttered objurgations.

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