John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Yes! Is it not a trifle, in view of such a grand service, that they should restore my manhood?” Runch demanded. And-

“Will they not give me back my youth?” shouted Roiga.

At the same moment there was a shifting underfoot, as though the land had taken on a colossal weight, and their dialogue with the traveler in black was forgotten. They rushed to the windows and peered out, this way and that, striving to catch a glimpse of whatever had descended to the earth.

“Oh, my wonderful brother!” Scail cried. “Had I but the half of his skills!”

“Well, well!” the traveler said, and then again: “Well, well! As you wish, so be it.”

None of them heard him. Nor did they hear the later whisper that echoed from the stone walls following his departure, which sounded a little like:

“Now why did I not think of that before?”


This, therefore, was the manner of the coming back of the former great ones to the world. And it was not totally to their liking.

Left alone in the stock-depleted house of Buldebrime, the gaggle of apprentices had at first been worried and afraid; then the boy of fourteen who had conceived the notion of making that mocking doll sought to calm the youngest of his companions by producing it again, and they dissolved into laughter as he put it through absurd motions by heating it so the limbs could be deformed. Laughter made them grow bolder, and recalled them to routine. They fed themselves, and then since their master was not present to forbid them they made free of the house, tumbling together in many enjoyable games until sleep overtook them.

On the morrow, however, they were frightened anew by the curious unprecedented length of the darkness enveloping the neighborhood, and moreover they were hungry, because last night they had eaten their fill from the supplies in the pantry. For some of them it was the first time in months they had had a square meal; so nothing was left but crumbs.

They hunted high and low by the wan light of such candles as they had managed to make for themselves after Buldebrime’s stock had been confiscated by Garch’s men, and ultimately found a way to prise off the padlock blocking their access to the attic room. In company of the girl with the scarred face, the leading boy braved the ladder-like steps and looked around the shadowed books and mystic articles with amazement.

“Would that I knew what all these things are for and could employ them!” the girl said.

The traveler spoke soft words, unnoticed, in a corner.

In the increasing chill of their hut by Rotten Tor, little Nelva and her mother listened in agony to the racking coughs the cold afflicted upon Yarn.

“Oh, mother!” the bairn cried, seeing how the fire faded and gave no heat. “Would I knew what the nice man in black did, to make the lamp burn brightly! Then I’d do it to the logs, and we’d all be warm!”

The traveler again spoke unheard words, and went his way.

Trapped by the incredible darkness in a very bad inn, the Shebya trader scratched his flea-bites and wrangled with the landlord, claiming that anyone who offered such hard beds and such foul beer had no right to the regular score from his clients. At length, losing temper, he shouted at the man.

“Ho, that I knew a way to rid the world of greed like yours, that turns one’s stomach sour with fury! Ho, that I dealt here only with honest fellows like myself, having codes and principles that require strict adherence to a bargain!”

He was exaggerating just a little; nonetheless, the Shebyas were frank, as all agreed, though a hint of sleight-of-mind might sometimes give them the better of a deal with anybody less subtle.

Chuckling, the traveler spoke and tapped his staff on the wall.

He wondered how it was faring with Garch Thegn of Cleftor Heights.

And the answer, framed in brief, was-not so well.

Down to him came the powers to which he’d bowed, weary of long conjurations, but content inasmuch as all had said to him, “We’ll go see first that you have kept your word, and then we’ll speak of settling our bargain!”

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