John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

He entered the door of ashwood clamped with brass, and it was closed at his back with the traditional braided withes: one at the height of his neck, one at the height of his heart, and one at the height of his genitals. That done, Runch and Roiga and Scail perforce withdrew. Unless they chose to run away, indeed, by tomorrow’s daylight, the process was in train and they were to be dragged with it.

Even running away might not help.

As for the traveler in black, he had no choice. This was intrinsically a part of that which bound him. From this moment forward, he was compelled to remain. Here was no petty hearthside conjuration, to be laughed at when it failed and probably neglected thereafter; here was no witty tampering with the course of natural events, such as certain happy enchanters had counted a fair reward for the relief of boredom; here was no ritual from which overt profit instantly ensued, such as the merchant enchanters of a bygone age had employed to make their cities prosperous.

No, those trivialities could be ignored. Here, though, was a ceremony so elaborate, so pregnant with possibility and so absolutely devoid of probability that its very name, regardless of what language it was uttered in, sent shivers down the spines of uncomprehending listeners. Here, set on foot in a selfish lordling’s mansion, was such a pattern as had not been undertaken since the epoch of the Grand Five Weavers and the Notorious Magisters of Alken Cromlech: the most ancient, the most arcane, the most honorable appellation of the Ones Who-

The traveler froze the progress of his mind. Almost, he had recited the full title to himself. And were he to do so, all-all-everything would be eternally lost.

If it were not already lost. He feared it was.


The lady Scail slept but ill that night, and when her shoulder was gently touched at last by the waiting-maid who attended her in her chamber, she rolled her face fretfully back into her satin pillows.

“Fool!” she snapped. “I said to waken me at dawn. I’ll have your head for disturbing me when it’s still full dark!”

Indeed, across the windows a pall of utter lightlessness remained.

“But, madam,” whispered the poor girl, “according to our time-candles dawn should have befallen an hour ago. Yet the sky remains like pitch!”

Lady Scail sat up on the instant. Through the opened shutters she saw the truth of the maid’s assertion. Rising from her night-couch, she exclaimed in wonder.

“Why-why, that bodes success after all! Here, girl, go rout out Runch and Roiga from their beds, and bid them wait on me at once!”

Unprecedentedly, without waiting to be handed her day-time garments, she threw aside her sleeping-gown and struggled by herself into a creased chemise.

Similarly awakened, Roiga trembled with delight and anticipation. She had spent weary decades pent in a worn-out body, with her knees cracking from the rheumatism and her eyes returning blurred images of the outer world. Now under her shriveled bosom her heart beat hammer-wise at the impending prospect of re-purchased youth.

It was the same for one-eyed Runch: still a mighty man to outward view, scorning the luxury of his companions and affecting the disciplined, hardy habits of a soldier accustomed to sleeping in fields and marching all day through sleet and hail. Therefore he reposed at night on a simple bed of planks with one blanket.

But over the past few years he had more and more often failed to pleasure the girls he summoned to his couch, until at length he had been unable to endure further humiliation, and took to sleeping alone.

The promise of being able to rectify that…!

These three, however-and perhaps Garch himself, but none could certify what was transpiring in his secret room-were the only persons in the whole of the Cleftor lands who found any semblance of joy to greet the advent of this amazing and unprecedented…day? Well, “day” it should indeed have been by rights, and everywhere there should have been the normal daily bustle: the younger children playing by the doorway, the older dispatched to their dame-schools with their slates and pencils; the farmers bound to market hauling their travoises laden with cheese and bacon, their wives plucking geese or hunting eggs…

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