John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

In their midst, tied face to tail on a dirty donkey, was Buldebrime moaning and crying out, hands lashed at his back and his grease-stiff smock badly torn.

Some distance behind, unable to keep pace, a furious driver cursed a pair of shaggy-fetlocked horses drawing a cart loaded until the springs sagged with candles, lamps, and articles in bags which could not clearly be discerned.

Of itself, the parade might have been amusing. Given the circumstances which had led to it, the traveler could not find it other than appalling.

The darkness spread, and yet it did not move. Rather, it occurred, moment by moment, at places further from its source.


“Be calm!” Lady Scail for the latest of countless times adjured her brother.

“Be calm?” he echoed, mocking her. “How can I be? Are not they deserting us, the traitors, deserting me who gave them prosperity from this lean harsh country and made them the envy of folk in richer lands?”

It was true: news came every’ few minutes of some trusted serving-man, soldier or steward who had surreptitiously crept away from the household.

“Is it not, moreover,” he pursued, “the night before full moon? Is it not nearing midnight of that night? Must I not shortly go into the prescribed retreat? And how can we tell as yet how greatly we’ve been deceived by Buldebrime? Perhaps he miscalibrated our time-candles, so we’ll have no means to tell the proper hour!”

Admittedly, it was impossible to make astronomic observations under nights as black as these.

Nonetheless, she blasted the same injunction at him, saying, “You fool, you have to keep your head at any cost! How many enchanters have not gone to doom because an elemental took advantage of just that weakness in their character?”

Sweating, gulping draught after draught of wine to lend him courage, he did his best to comply, since reason was on her side. However, self-mastery was hard. The mansion, and not only that but the entire surrounding countryside, was aquiver. The jagged range of Cleftor Heights was thrumming to a soundless vibration of menace, as though one of the beings incarcerated in a restless star had found the means to transmit terror down a shaft of light and struck the bedrock into resonating the keynote of a symphony of disaster, against the advent of the instrumentalists.

Moreover, it is not good for one who invokes the forces of chaos to pay any attention whatsoever to reason….

“Where’s Roiga?” Garch demanded of a sudden.

“Where she should be: making ready in your room.”

“And Runch?”

“They called him to the gate a while ago. They’ve sighted the party bringing Buldebrime.”

“Then I’ll go down to the dungeons,” Garch declared, and drained his goblet. “I must be first to learn what that traitor’s done!”

There was routine in this mansion, as in the household of any great lord, and to outward appearance it was being maintained. At the corner of two echoing corridors the traveler in black saw proof of this. Thump-thump down the passages to the beat of drums came the nightly provisions for the company at dinner: pies stuffed with game so heavy two men staggered under the load, and the whole roasted haunches of oxen and sheep; then serving-girls with jugs of wine and beer, and butlers carrying fine white linen napkins on their arms, and boys with ewers and basins that the diners might wash their hands in scented water, and harpists, and flautists, and a dwarf. This last hobbled awkwardly in an overlong gown, designed to make him trip often on its hem for the amusement of the gathering.

One could not intelligently foresee there being much laughter in the banquet-hall tonight. The stones from which the building was erected shared the incipient convulsions of the landscape, and overmuch dust danced in the light of the torches.

Intermittently, from beneath the floor, issued screams.

Orderly, with professional niceness, the least spoken-of among Garch’s retainers-Tradesman Humblenode, the torturer-had set out the varied equipment for his task: here whips and fetters, thumbscrews there; tongs, knives and nooses at another place; and in the center of all a brazier, at which a little dirty boy worked a blacksmith’s bellows in a vain attempt to make the fuel burn as bright as was required. Even here under the courtyard, where the walls oozed continual damp, the pervasive obliterating light-absorption of the strange night made itself known.

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