Mon
Jun 3 2013 8:00am

The Black Company Reread: The Black Company

The Black Company Read The Black CompanyThanks for joining me on this trip and apologies again for the slight delay in getting going. We’re all good now though; we’ll be heading north for a bit (and about as far north as you can go) and then turning round and heading south until we reach the spot where it all began. Just a couple of very quick things before we head off.

I’m going to assume that if you’re here for the trip then you’ve read the book and will know what happens in it. So, in order to free up more space for discussion, I’m not going to lay out the plot here although of course I will refer to it. If your memory needs refreshing then have a look at the plot summary on Wikipedia which I found to be very thorough and covers all the bases. With this in mind then I realised that avoiding spoilers isn’t that much of an issue. I mean, we’ve all read the book haven’t we? Just bear that in mind though if you haven’t.

All clear? Right, let’s go.

I guess the big question that I had, coming back to these books after so many years, was whether the books are as gritty and grim as they’ve been hailed and, if they are, how they hold up to the “grimdark” fiction of today. If The Black Company is anything to go by then this series can still hold its head high amongst the rest of them. What I found interesting though is the way that Cook handles it all.

War is war and Cook doesn’t shy away from showing us the true horror that can be found around the edges of otherwise noble looking battles between good and evil. That line is blurred anyway (and more on that in a bit) but Cook shows his reader just what it’s like to be on the periphery of these fights with covert missions ending in prisoners digging graves that they will fill and women suffering whichever side is victorious. War is a nasty business, make no mistake about it, but Cook handles it in a rather dispassionate “tell it like it is” manner that lays things right on the line without gloating. I like that approach for its honesty and for the fact that it doesn’t revel in just how grim the plot gets. And it’s all done through one short passage from our Annalist Croaker himself:

I should be used to this. I have been with the Company a long time. And it does bother me less than it used to. I have hung armor plate over my moral soft spots. But I still try to avoid looking at the worst.

You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realise that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruellest fantasies, their behaviour tempered by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old lessons die hardest.

Raven laughs when he reads my accounts. “Sugar and spice,” he calls them, and threatens to take the Annals away and write the stories the way he sees them happen.

It’s a great insight into Croaker’s mindset and a great way for Cook to back up his approach. You thought it was bad enough already? Well, Croaker is actually shielding you from the worst of it and maybe you should thank him that you’re not going through what he has. Does make you wonder how seriously he takes being an Annalist if he’s not being entirely honest. The Lady seems to think he’s honest enough when she wants him to be her Annalist though, what do you think?

I found it a bit odd then that Cook throws this all out of whack with a brief mention of (Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse) Croaker dreaming about himself with two twelve year old girls; this is on page 284 of the mass market edition. Is this battlefield trauma leaking through into his dreams or is Croaker hiding some particularly nasty secrets himself? I’m leaning towards the former but it’s still a little odd (to say the least) to see this on the page when Cook has taken the approach that he has. Hmmm....

But, onto the book itself….

While The Black Company is equal parts war story and setting things up for future books, there is a lot more to it than that once you really get into the book. I’ve got to admit that, having read the book without looking at a map, none of the troop movements made an awful lot of sense to me. I mean, I got the general gist of things (the Lady winning then the Rebel winning and so on) but it just felt like Cook was marking time and trying to get things set up for the final battle at Charm. Not that the battle wasn’t worth the wait but the talk of battles leading up to it felt like it dragged.

It’s when Cook zooms in and focuses on the detail though, that’s when things got really interesting for me. Through the eyes of Croaker, you see what looks like a straightforward battle between good and evil turn into a battle where the Lady’s “evil” is fighting against a “good that has actually been supplanted by an evil from beyond the grave (the Dominator and her husband). If evil is fighting to halt a greater evil (albeit so the Lady can stay in power) then you have to ask yourself where the line between the two is drawn. If one side is pure evil, does that make the other side good by default? And then take into account the divisions within the Ten Who Were Taken and what that leads to… I actually found myself feeling a little sorry for The Limper (and that took some doing, he’s a nasty piece of work) when the dust had settled and the factions became more clear. And the bit where you find out who Soulcatcher really is… Who amongst us didn’t go “woah…”?

There’s also the question of what the Company is fighting for, other than money that is….

There had been times when the Black Company was prosperous, but never when it was rich. Accumulation of wealth is not our purpose.

For all the talk of “purpose,” you never really find out what that purpose is.

It’s not all deep stuff though, although the entire northern continent is at war there are breaks in the fighting for the Company where they basically kick back and take bets on whether Goblin or One-Eye will win the latest round of “magical one-upmanship.” I’d say the scores are even, although those two would disagree. Anyone else fancy keeping score as we go through the books? These are my favourite moments as Cook shows us that he has a (very childish) sense of humour that goes neatly with his sense of the dramatic,

One-Eye scowled and growled but did not catch on. He got a glimmer when we crested a hill and beheld a band of monkey-sized pygmies busily kissing an idol reminiscent of a horse’s behind. Every pygmy was a miniature One-Eye.

It’s childish but I know I’ll be laughing just as much the next time I read that and other passages.

Cook can also ramp up the action when he wants to and that’s basically every scene with Raven in it. Raven proves pivotal to events in the first five books so get used to seeing him around a lot. For now, he’s a hard bitten Lord fallen on hard times who joins up with the Company and then proceeds to drop them in it by pursuing his own vendetta against the Limper and his command (amongst other things, I’ll be keeping score here too). This will not be the most annoying thing that he does, for now it’s more annoying to see the Company make excuses for him after he proves that he can’t let the past go.

I’ve mentioned my favourite bits but have left the coolest bit for last; I’m talking Forvalaka hunting on the mean streets of Beryl (and they are mean, don’t let the name “Beryl” fool you). The whole question of whether the Company should renege on a contract (a really big deal for them) is firmly placed in the shade by a mythical beast prowling the streets and generally making a generally tense situation even worse. And did Soulcatcher plan it that way? I reckon so… chasing the Forvalaka through the tower was just like a scene from Aliens and the resulting magical firepower makes the comparison even more apt. And to see what has happened to the Syndic just afterwards, the Black Company may not like breaking a contract but if they have to then they’ll leave that contract well and truly broken.

I’m approaching the end of my space here so thanks for sticking around for a re-read that wasn’t so much about the plot as it was themes and things that I generally thought were quite cool. Shadows Linger will focus a lot more on plot I reckon and that post will arrive here in two week’s time. In the meantime, I’m sure I haven’t covered everything so please feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments thread and I will join in.

I’ll see the rest of you in a fortnight’s time.


Graeme Flory is a London-based writer and lover of fantasy and science fiction literature. Read his book reviews at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review.

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30 comments
m k
1. HiroProtagonist
i'm looking for my next series, and was thinking about black company. re-readers, what do you think? i loved malazan. seriously, one of my favorite series ever. also, asoif and wot. i couldn't, however, get into sword of truth. not sure why, but i've been stuck on book 1 for months. so based on my "likes", do you think this is for me?
Myriam Wermter
2. Phedre21
@HiroPotagonist:

Based on your likes "The Black Company" is so far in your wheelhouse it's not even funny any more. Erikson actually dedicated one of the Malazan books to Cook, though I forget which one, so that is all the recommendation a Malazan fan should need.

Go ahead and enjoy. I almost envy you for getting to experience it all with fresh eyes.
Alicia Dodson
3. LynMars
I just started reading this series and am on the second book now! Looking forward to seeing more of this world and characters.
Dixon Davis
4. KadesSwordElanor
When the Forvalaka showed up in the first book, I knew the Black Company was a series, and thought the Forvalaka might be the crux of the series, as The major antagonist. I was wrong but not disappointed.
OgreMkV
5. OgreMkV
I must be reading a different Black Company. I picked this up at the Amazon sale for it. But I was massively disappointed.

This book moves too fast in the wrong areas. That scene you described of the were-leopard battle in the tower... it wasn't scary, it wasn't tense... it was over in less time than it took me to write this paragraph. It certainly wasn't like 'Alien'. It was more like 'Alien Predator', that B-movie that tried to copy Alien and ended up just being 88 minutes of blood splashing on the walls.

The battles are over in paragraphs... sometimes even sentences. After their several month march North, they had a battle with an enemy regiment. And it was described by Cook, in about that many sentences.

If you want to read a story about a mercenary company, then I would suggest Dragon by Steven Brust. It's not as gritty, but it's well paced, good descriptions of what's going on, excellent characterizations etc.

Sorry, I'm just not impressed with this at all...
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
There are sufficient events in chapter 1 to fill an entire book. We get an excellent introduction to the voice and character of Croaker and through him, the gritty bunch of men who are the Black Company. The ordinary men, the officers and the four sorcerors who give them a deadlyt advantage.
Beryl is a mess. A boiling pot of politics and unsuppressed factions ready to riot and revolt. Interwoven in that tale we have the hunt for the Forvalaka:
Blood-drinking, liver-eating wereleopards. Ancient, darkness-wise, filled with a millennium of hatred and hunger. The stuff of nightmare all right. “Can you handle it?”
This part of the story of chapter one adds a fantastic tale of horror to that of battle and political intrigue. The Forvalaka remains one of my favorite monsters to this day.
And then, amidst this dark background we are introduced to the Legate from the North. The Legate introduces the oh so reasonable plan to extract the Company from the mess that is Beryl. It won't cost much, just whatever conscience they might have left.
The final scene where Croaker realizes whom they have signed on with is precious. That and the real plot that was going on in the tower of the Syndic. As Croaker says, "One-Eye never figured it out." That was for the best as they would have troubles enough, soon enough.
David Levinson
7. DemetriosX
Cook can do grimdark a whole lot grimmer and darker than the Black Company. The Dread Empire series makes the Company look like kittens and rainbows, although Bragi is a lot more good and noble than even the best of Croaker's brothers.

Cook's mastery is his worldbuilding. There is always a sense of deep history and events happening all over the known world that may not even really impact the grand story. And he's good at telling you about all that. No blank exposition and no "As you know, Bob," but conversations and asides that fit into the dialogue. I've always wanted to play D&D with him as DM.
OgreMkV
8. Twitchity
OgreMkV,

Unfortunately, you pretty well hit on the weak spot of Cook's writing -- his pacing always feels a bit off, and everything reads (appropriately, though possibly not intentionally) like a condensed military history rather than a novel. The strong thematics do work to ameliorate the problem, though I think for a lot of readers not enough to keep them going. (In fact, by Dreams of Steel, the pacing improves significantly, but I feel that Cook then drops the ball in failing to create a new, distinctive voice for the new narrator.)

I do like the books, enough that I picked them back up after several years and am now in the middle of the second trilogy, but I'm not surprised they didn't grab you.
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
I'll just note that I don't think there is anything wrong with the pacing at all. This is clearly a matter of individual taste, but just note that the title is "The Black Company." Cook is telling the tale of a group of mercenaries and what is important to them from the particular point of view of Croaker.
OgreMkV
10. cietrzezwiew
well ,about the "very childish humor" ; if you mean one-eye vs goblin situations and by "very childish" you mean simple and situational then i agree , but apart from these scenes most of the jokes or funny quotes come from croaker's sarcastic view on the world , politics , religion etc.
for example -

QUOTE"“That fool is going to pile onto the rocks.”
I woke up. The coaster was perilously near said danger. She shifted course a
point and eluded disaster by a hundred yards, resumed her original course.
“That put some excitement into our day,” I observed.
“One of these first days you’re going to say something without getting sarcastic
and I’ll curl up and die, Croaker.”
“Keeps me sane, friend.”QUOTE
OgreMkV
10. Hex
Re-reading for the first time in years.

I do think Cook's pacing is off, but for some reason, I get past it in the Black Company, but bounced hard off of Dread Empire because of it.

I read it so long ago, the plot points for the next 2 books are really fuzzy, but the characters were still totally fresh in my mind.

I remember thinking the end of the first Trilogy was as satisfying an ending as I've read. Can't wait to see if I still feel that way.
OgreMkV
11. Alex F.
Regarding Cook's pacing (and writing style in general), I've always felt that one of the strengths of the Black Company is that Cook never tries to sell Croaker as a particularly good writer. He's a semi-educated soldier jotting down the day's events before falling asleep, and the style of writing supports that. Some people never manage to enjoy the books because of this--I understand that, but for me, Croaker's narration helps sell the whole atmosphere of the company. And of course, Cook is a skilled enough stylist that Croaker's writing is emminently readable while still maintaining its flavor.

I understand there are changes to the narrative in some of the later novels--I've only ever read the first three, so take that for what it's worth....
OgreMkV
12. A.J. Zaethe
I actually didn't find the Chronicles of the Black Company that dark. I have read the Wheel of Time, and I would have to say that it was only slightly darker than that, which isn't much at all.

What really catches me in Cook's Black Company is his ability to worldbuild in first person. The impossible done. Not that worldbuilding for first person is impossible, but to show an entire world through the eyes of one person. How he has done this is beyond me and has astounded me. I thought work like this impossible and I give Cook a standing ovation for doing it.
OgreMkV
13. Raziel
I readed whole series in last year. Of course, some books vere dissapointing (especially fourth book - spin off), sometimes I wanted more information about characters or world - for example Lady, in fact after ten volumes we still know almost nothing from her past. But first three books and last two are really worth reading - for characters, some twists and atmosphere of novels.
Reread is great idea!

Sorry for any mistakes - English is not my mother tongue.
Tabby Alleman
14. Tabbyfl55
When I first started The Black Company, I was a little leery of the voice, and sceptical that I was going to like the book.

Fortunately, the line that hooked me was written very early in the book. I don't have the book handy, so I'll have to paraphrase, hopefully not too badly:
Dancing was an old time general who'd nearly laid waste to the entire city. Men still shuddered at the sound of his name.
I barked a laugh that made everyone within 20 feet jump when I read that.
Steven Halter
15. stevenhalter
Tabbyfl55@14:
I knocked on the Captain’s door. He did not respond. I invited myself inside, found him snoring in his big wooden chair. “Yo!” I hollered. “Fire! Riots in the Groan! Dancing at the Gate of Dawn!” Dancing was an old time general who nearly destroyed Beryl. People still shudder at his name.
Christopher Morgan
16. cmorgan
Re: Croaker as Analist

I never read the Black Company as what it's like to be a soldier, more like what it is like to write military history. I myself came to these books while in college and grad school studying Military History, and Croaker is perfect for that. I've always thought that the character illustrates perfectly the war the an individual has with himself when you are trying to reconcile the angels and devils of human nature. In that, I think that his illusions of being with 12 year olds isn't a lie, though I also think that it's more world building.

The world of the black company is more Westoros than Middle Earth. Bad things happen to good people, and by the end I think Croaker is an old man at 40 or 50. Here he is in his early 20s late teen years isn't he? Would it really be that off for a young-ish man to be fantasizing about such young girls in the middle ages?

And let's not forget the whole Vietnam War feel to everything about the Black Company, which only gets more explicit in the south with self immolating monks, "shadows" in the night, and "Guns" created by the Lady with her sorcery. Not to mention the Comapny's reliance upon ambushes, "helicopters", and superior training against superior numbers.
OgreMkV
17. StephanieF
cmorgan@16: Croaker's closer to his mid-30s during TBC. I'm currently halfway through rereading She is the Darkness, and Croaker's explicitly mentioned as being in his 60s then.
Christopher Morgan
18. cmorgan
Fair enough, could have sworn he was younger in Black Company though. That's why I thought he bonded so well with Murgen (my least favorite annalist), Murgen reminded Croaker of Croaker before he was captain.

Either way, you go back to as recent as the early 1900s to mid 1800s and you still have 30 year old men marrying teenangers. It's not till relatively recent that we've come to think of it as inappropriate.
OgreMkV
19. Methidextrosebicopsid
I always felt that Cook's simple writing lent the books a greater weight. Especially when he mixes the simplistic recounting of a days events with a musing on the nature of humanity as Animal, or one of a number of other themes. There are passages in the book that are just beautifully written and I always loved the way they dovetail with Croaker's almost coldly rational rendition of daily life in a mercerany company. In fact, the voice he uses reminds me in several points of Mallory's "Morte de Arthur".

All in all, I'd say that The Black Company is a unique take on the genre. I'm grateful for this re-read as I haven't had a chance to read them in a long time. See you all in Juniper in a couple of weeks.
Matthew Brown
20. morven
With regard to Croaker's dream that you mention: it's quite likely that Croaker, as someone from a very different culture and surrounded by horrors on a frequent basis, simply doesn't consider that bad enough to censor.

Cook's a Vietnam veteran, I think? The book certainly feels that way.

I think the confusion and sometimes tedium of the endless battles are part of the soldier's real experience too. I think they feel badly paced because war itself is badly paced, and Cook is deliberately trying for that realism.

Not every battle makes sense. Overall strategy is happening at a level far above him, and probably far above anyone in the Company, even the Captain, and not every battle is necessarily planned. Sometimes military encounters are inconclusive, unsatisfying, and resolve nothing.

I think perhaps we're too used to a far too neatly plotted war, in which every battle is an important turning-point in the overall plot, wrapping up to a nice conclusion at the end? Cook seems to be rebelling against that, probably because to him, and other veterans, it rings so false.

Raziel: I think Cook actually does better NOT explaining everything. Fantasy authors all too often make the mistake of showing their work, of making sure the reader knows just how much backstory they worked out, and look at how pretty it all is -- Cook instead leaves a lot of things just hinted at, and I like a book that lets you wonder a bit even at the end.
OgreMkV
21. Jonellin Stonebreaker
morven@20- You said it, brother. Battle is too often "hurry up and wait" , take that hill! leave that hill!
The series is, after all, about a company; not a single grunt; not a division or army, but a company, and he gets the dynamics right more often than not.
OgreMkV
22. Kasiki
On the pacing... I am only reading the books for the first time as theis re-read is going on and have to say that the pacing works well. Choice of roaker s both a soldier and a healer adds depth tothe situations. There is a reason for him not to be in the thick of things and see a bigger picture, but at the same time there is enough reason to see the small one on one battles that several of them face.

The issuse many see with the pacing also deal with how long it takes for events to happen. Seiges can take months or years. Armies at war might have only a few major engagements a season which leads to massive down time so it is good that Cook is able to use crooker as a focus. we digest something that has already been drawn down to the more essential events, with enoughbackground to know time frames and how things are going.

Is it perfect.. well nothing is, but it works very well for Cook in portraying the effects of War on a hardened Company of veteran soldiers and in the life of those in and around them on march and during battle.
Graeme Flory
23. graemeflory
Thanks for your comments everyone, always appreciated :)

HiroProtagonist - It's been said already but I'll echo it. If you love(d) Malazan then I think you'll get a hell of a lot out of the Black Company books.

OgreMkV - Sorry the book didn't work for you but thanks for the recommendation. I think I might have 'Dragon' on my shelf somewhere...

DemetriosX - I haven't read the 'Dread Empire' books yet but I do have the four Nightshade collections. Do they collect all the DE stories or am I missing another book? I think I might be missing another book...

Stevenhalter - I wish Cook had spent a little more time in Beryl although I wonder if it would have felt as urgent spread out over an entire book?

cietrzezwiew - That's where I was coming from, those moments are always good for a laugh. I saw Croaker's sarcasm as being world weary and, because of that, it didn't feel all that funny. Apart from the opening pages, some of the lines are delivered with great comic timing.

Alex F - I've only read all the way through the series once and you get at least one more narrator. All I'll say here is that I preferred Croaker's voice personally.

cmorgan - That's a really good point re Croaker's dream, hadn't thought of it quite like that. I wondered if Cook was balancing out Croaker perhaps not telling the entire truth about his comrades by being more honest about himself? I like your idea more.
OgreMkV
24. A.J. Zaethe
@Raziel
I would have to say the mystery made it all the more powerful. When the Ten and the Lady made their amazing displays, it was always a moment of oh shit...we are going to die. Magic is never explained and the mysteriousness of magic is kept and the extend of the Ten and the Lady also remain so. I think Cook has done brilliantly.
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
@23 Re: Dread Empire
I don't know about the Nightshade collections, so I can't say for sure. Basically, you have the original trilogy -- A Shadow of All Night Falling, October's Baby, and All Darkness Met -- then the prequel duology (which would probably get Cook fatwaed today) -- The Fire in His Hands and With Mercy Towards None -- and then the final trilogy which was so long delayed due to the theft of the MS for the last book -- Reap the East Wind, An Ill Fate Marshalling, and A Path to Coldness of Heart.

Looking the title up, I see that Nightshade has definitely collected the first two series and put out a collection of short stories set in the same universe. I suppose they might have collected the third series as well or maybe just the first two books of it, because of the delay with the last book?
OgreMkV
26. Tim Thraeryn
The Black Company series remains a favorite of mine because, through it all, you basically get one person's view of events. They don't always know all of the plots and schemes in play; they don't always have a god's-eye view of the main characters; they are familiar with the world around them, but don't know every history and don't really find them important enough to go into a three-page description in most cases.

The books are very real and human, people's recollections from their places in events far larger than themselves. Sometimes the description of a battle has merit and weight; sometimes, it's enough to know that "our guys won" without recounting troop movements and meteorological setbacks. Sometimes guys sitting around a fire, sharing their speculations on the grand state of things moves the plot, offers chances for foreshadowing and surprise, far more than a typical narrative would.

In other news, I'm mostly through book seven and there's still a week left until the discussion of book two. I wish you all had more time to fall down the book hole. ;)
Steven Halter
27. stevenhalter
In Chapter 2 we start off with a break from the dark tension of Chapter One a bit with a potential bar room fight broken up by One Eye's magic. Then, drunken, the guys go to a restaurant and meet Raven. Raven's deadliness and moral ambiguity are quickly shown as he asks to join the Company and then kills three people at the restaurant, one of them a woman whom he strangles. This tells us something of Raven but also tells us quite a bit about the Company. Meeting Raven and learning more about the Company are really what Chapter 2 is doing. No one tries to stop Raven and the offer to join is not taken back. Then, we head north past the dark bulk of the Tower at Charm (the Lady's headquarters) and on to Forsberg to where the Rebels await. Raven joins along the way and we get a glimpse of the Company as the Captain has an uncivil messenger flogged to send a message on respect. This quick cut scene style is one that some people don't take well, but I rather like. Croaker doesn't waste words on things he doesn't care about.
The journey North isn't about the journey, it's all about the getting there and what happens at the other side that affects the Company. The journey is broken up again as Croaker records a piece of the long ongoing "feud" between Goblin and One Eye. This bits of magical one upsmanship will intertwine with the story--they are great tension relievers both for us and the troops.
The Company begins to encounter the detritus of the Limper's battles with the Rebels. We learn that what sets the Ten who were Taken apart is their mastery of killing spells. As they continue north, following the Limper's trail of battles, they come across a village in which some of Limper's men are tormenting a girl and an old man. Raven reveals that he may have some sort of humanity as he stops them. A fine example of the style of what is important to Croaker is:
So we went and did it. We captured the fortress at Deal, in the dead of night, within howling distance of Oar. They say both Raker and the Limper flew into insane rages. I figure Soulcatcher ate that up.
Some author's might have spent many pages describing an important event like capturing the fortress. Cook has Croaker remark on it and gives equal weight to the reactions of the bosses. Then we join the "guys" in one of their many games of "Tonk." Playing cards and passing time is where the time is spent. With this little passage, Cook shows us what matters to Croaker and hence the average soldiers instead of the Dark sorcerous Lords and Ladies.
Next, we spend some time in Oar. The Limper's left hand man Colonel Zouad has set a trap for Raven in the stables where the Company has been keeping an outpost. The trap doesn't quite kill Raven but a number of Company guys are hurt. Elmo decides that this would be a bad precedent to let stand. The Company can't be messed with. Here we see what the Company is really good at. They are tough, but above all they are tricky. They use the stable keeper to tell the Rebels the location of Zouad. The Rebels get Zouad but Limper finds out and comes to help. Soulcatcher sends Sahpeshifter to help. Shifter's description:
It looked as tall as a house and half as wide. It wore scarlet bleached by time, moth-eaten, and tattered. It came up the street in a sort of shamble, now fast, now slow. Wild, stringy grey hair tangled around its head. Its bramble patch of a beard was so thick and matted with filth that its face was all but invisible. One pallid, liver-spotted hand clutched a pole of a staff that was a thing of beauty defiled by its bearer’s touch. It was an immensely elongated female body, perfect in every detail.
is fantastic. Cook really shines with the Taken. Each one is a work of art described through the Companies interactions and responses. This section serves not just to show us the Company in action, but to take us deeper into the enmities that make up the Taken. The situation escalates and Shifter vanishes after the Limper is trapped. The Company high tails it out of Oar and the Limper is left holding the bag and a new set of grudges as his front with the Rebel collapses with his absence.
Steven Halter
28. stevenhalter
Chapter 3 is lovely. In case you didn't know, "Raker" first appeared (slightly changed to stand alone) in the August 1982 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.This would have coincided with my first semester of college and the happy discovery of "The Black Company" came later in 1984 when it arrived.
Back to the loveliness. Croaker and the gang are sitting around in Meystrikt trying not to be cold. It is a nasty winter in a bleak place. Elmo returns from a patrol with news. They almost caught the Rebel commander Raker. He got away but left behind some hairs. One Eye and Goblin are all over this and form a plan. Soulcatcher is told and comes to help. Part of the loveliness here is that we get to see Soulcatcher in more detail here. He/she/they appear both more human and very strange at the same time.
The main piece of loveliness is that we really get to see the sneaky side of the Company. In most fantasies the expectation of getting someones hairs is that some terrible soul destroying sorcery is about to be wrecked. One Eye, Goblin and Catcher do perform a sorcery and it does wreck some souls.
With the neatly chiseled stone inscribed with:
LET HE WHO WOULD CLAIM THIS WEALTH SEAT THE HEAD OF THE CREATURE RAKER WITHIN THIS THRONE OF STONE
they set a trap that sets the Rebels to work against themselves. As Raker fails to disarm the trap he discredits himself. At the same time the treasure to be had tests the loyalty of friends and turns those who might otherwise have been inclined to be friendly into open enemies.
Soulcatcher replied, “It’s happening on the other side. In people’s minds.” Was there a hint of smugness there? “Raker, and by extension the Circle, looks impotent. He should have yielded the Salient to another commander.”
“If I was a bigtime general, I probably wouldn’t admit to a screwup either,” I said.
“Croaker,” Elmo gasped, amazed. I do not speak my mind, usually.
“It’s true, Elmo. Can you picture any general—ours or theirs—asking somebody to take over for him?”
That black morion faced me. “Their faith is dying. An army without faith in itself is beaten more surely than an army defeated in battle.” When Soulcatcher gets on a subject nothing deflects him.
They just have to wait, but the Company never completely just sits around. The denouement of the trap reveals that the trap was not just there for Raker, but also nets a failure for the Limper.
With a final
Out of nowhere, Soulcatcher said, “She’s very beautiful, Croaker. Young-looking. Fresh. Dazzling. With a heart of flint. The Limper is a warm puppy by comparison. Pray you never catch her eye.”
Soulcatcher shows insight into Croaker and that they know very well what is going on.
Steven Halter
29. stevenhalter
In Chapter 4, we join the Company in the midst of celebration. They happened upon a Rebel headquarters in the midst of the Forest of Cloud. Despite being outnumbered, the Company took advantage of suprise and the night and captured it with little pain. Croaker then lifts the veil a bit and we see the Company in the midst of debauchery. The is plunder, rape and the putting to death of the captured. These are not pretty men, but we know that. They are Croaker's brothers and he doesn't always agree with their actions but he doesn't stop them either.
In the midst of this Croaker finds a cache of documents. Many concern the order of battle for the upcoming Rebel movements from one of their main leaders--Whisper. Among this trove of documents (well buried in the back) are some older documents. Some from the secret papers of the wizard Bomanz who had awakened the Lady in the first place. They bring in Soulcatcher who examines the docs and finds her own name along with three others of the Taken.
They arrange to be at a trap with special arrows with inscribed names. Croaker and Raven catch Whisper and the Limper. Catcher and then Shapeshifter show up and then they wait. Croaker spots Silent in place as back-up. Then, the Lady shows up. She punishes the Limper:
He had gone thirty feet when a thousand fiery snakes streaked out of the night and swarmed him. They covered his body. They slithered into his mouth and nose, into his eyes and ears. They went in the easy way and came gnawing out through his back and chest and belly. And he screamed. And screamed. And screamed. And the same terrible vitality which had fought off the lethality of Raven’s arrows kept him alive throughout this punishment.
And then she Takes Whisper:
Of the rest of it there are only flickers of recollection, most filled with Whisper’s screams. There was a moment when the clearing filled with dancing devils all glowing with their inner wickedness. They fought for the privilege of mounting Whisper. There was a time when Whisper faced the eye. A time when, I think, Whisper died and was resurrected, died and was resurrected, till she became intimate with death. There were times when she was tortured. And another time with the eye.
It seems to Croaker that he has become haunted. Haunted by what he witnessed and that "in the end, evil always triumphs." Here, we get a glimpse of evil in forms mundane and exultant, but always harsh.

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