Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophesy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her… So begins one of the greatest fantasy epics of our age—Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company.
Chapter One: LEGATE
There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.
Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.
But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows—though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps’ entrails.
Still, the best augurs are those who divine from the portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its night streets.
I had every shutter thrown wide, praying for a breath off the harbor, rotting fish and all. There wasn’t enough breeze to stir a cobweb. I mopped my face and grimaced at my first patient. “Crabs again, Curly?”
He grinned feebly. His face was pale. “It’s my stomach, Croaker.” His pate looks like a polished ostrich egg. Thus the name. I checked the watch schedule and duty roster. Nothing there he would want to avoid. “It’s bad, Croaker. Really.”
“Uhm.” I assumed my professional demeanor, sure what it was. His skin was clammy, despite the heat. “Eaten outside the commissary lately, Curly?” A fly landed on his head, strutted like a conqueror. He didn’t notice.
“Yeah. Three, four times.”
“Uhm.” I mixed a nasty, milky concoction. “Drink this. All of it.”
His whole face puckered at thefirsttaste. “Look, Croaker, I”
The smell of the stuff revolted me. “Drink, friend. Two men died before I came up with that. Then Pokey took it and lived.” Word was out about that.
“You mean it’s poison? The damned Blues slipped me something?”
“Take it easy. You’ll be okay. Yeah. It looks that way.” I’d had to open up Walleye and Wild Bruce to learn the truth. It was a subtle poison. “Get over there on the cot where the breeze will hit you—if the son of a bitch ever comes up. And lie still. Let the stuff work.” I settled him down.
“Tell me what you ate outside.” I collected a pen and a chart tacked onto a board. I had done the same with Pokey, and with Wild Bruce before he died, and had had Walleye’s platoon sergeant backtrack his movements. I was sure the poison had come from one of several nearby dives frequented by the Bastion garrison.
Curly produced one across-the-board match. “Bingo! We’ve got the bastards now.”
“Who?” He was ready to go settle up himself.
“You rest. I’ll see the Captain.” I patted his shoulder, checked the next room. Curly was it for morning sick call.
I took the long route, along Trejan’s Wall, which overlooks Beryl’s harbor. Halfway over I paused, stared north, past the mole and lighthouse and Fortress Island, at the Sea of Torments. Particolored sails speckled the dingy grey-brown water as coastal dhows scooted out along the spiderweb of routes linking the Jewel Cities. The upper air was still and heavy and hazy. The horizon could not be discerned. But down on the water the air was in motion. There was always a breeze out around the Island, though it avoided the shore as if fearing leprosy. Closer at hand, the wheeling gulls were as surly and lackadaisical as the day promised to make most men.
Another summer in service to the Syndic of Beryl, sweating and grimy, thanklessly shielding him from political rivals and his undisciplined native troops. Another summer busting our butts for Curly’s reward. The pay was good, but not in coin of the soul. Our forebrethren would be embarrassed to see us so diminished.
Beryl is misery curdled, but also ancient and intriguing. Its history is a bottomless well filled with murky water. I amuse myself plumbing its shadowy depths, trying to isolate fact from fiction, legend, and myth. No easy task, for the city’s earlier historians wrote with an eye to pleasing the powers of their day.
The most interesting period, for me, is the ancient kingdom, which is the least satisfactorily chronicled. It was then, in the reign of Niam, that the forvalaka came, were overcome after a decade of terror, and were confined in their dark tomb atop the Necropolitan Hill. Echoes of that terror persist in folklore and matronly admonitions to unruly children. No one recalls what the forvalaka were, now.
I resumed walking, despairing of beating the heat. The sentries, in their shaded kiosks, wore towels draped around their necks.
A breeze startled me. I faced the harbor. A ship was rounding the Island, a great lumbering beast that dwarfed the dhows and feluccas. A silver skull bulged in the center of its full-bellied black sail. That skull’s red eyes glowed. Fires flickered behind its broken teeth. A glittering silver band encircled the skull.
“What the hell is that?” a sentry asked.
“I don’t know, Whitey.” The ship’s size impressed me more than did its flashy sail. The four minor wizards we had with the Company could match that showmanship. But I’d never seen a galley sporting five banks of oars.
I recalled my mission.
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.
The Captain was cool. He didn’t crack an eyelid or smile. “You’re presumptuous, Croaker. When are you going to learn to go through channels?” Channels meant bug the Lieutenant first. Don’t interrupt his nap unless the Blues were storming the Bastion.
I explained about Curly and my chart.
He swung his feet off the desk. “Sounds like work for Mercy.” His voice had a hard edge. The Black Company does not suffer malicious attacks upon its men.
Mercy was our nastiest platoon leader. He thought a dozen men would suffice, but let Silent and me tag along. I could patch the wounded. Silent would be useful if the Blues played rough. Silent held us up half a day while he made a quick trip to the woods.
“What the hell you up to?” I asked when he got back, lugging a ratty-looking sack.
He just grinned. Silent he is and silent he stays.
The place was called Mole Tavern. It was a comfortable hangout. I had passed many an evening there. Mercy assigned three men to the back door, and a pair each to the two windows. He sent another two to the roof. Every building in Beryl has a roof hatch. People sleep up top during the summer.
He led the rest of us through the Mole’s front door.
Mercy was a smallish, cocky fellow, fond of the dramatic gesture. His entry should have been preceded by fanfares.
The crowd froze, stared at our shields and bared blades, at snatches of grim faces barely visible through gaps in our face guards. “Verus!” Mercy shouted. “Get your butt out here!”
The grandfather of the managing family appeared. He sidled toward us like a mutt expecting a kick. The customers began buzzing. “Silence!” Mercy thundered. He could get a big roar out of his small body.
“How may we help you, honored sirs?” the old man asked.
“You can get your sons and grandsons out here, Blue.”
Chairs squeaked. A soldier slammed his blade into a tabletop.
“Sit still,” Mercy said. “You’re just having lunch, fine. You’ll be loose in an hour.”
The old man began shaking. “I don’t understand, sir. What have we done?”
Mercy grinned evilly. “He plays the innocent well. It’s murder, Verus. Two charges of murder by poisoning. Two of attempted murder by poisoning. The magistrates decreed the punishment of slaves.” He was having fun.
Mercy wasn’t one of my favorite people. He never stopped being the boy who pulled wings off flies.
The punishment of slaves meant being left up for scavenger birds after public crucifixion. In Beryl only criminals are buried uncremated, or not buried at all.
An uproar rose in the kitchen. Somebody was trying to get out the back door. Our men were objecting.
The public room exploded. A wave of dagger-brandishing humanity hit us.
They forced us back to the door. Those who were not guilty obviously feared they would be condemned with those who were. Beryl’s justice is fast, crude, and harsh, and seldom gives a defendant opportunity to clear himself.
A dagger slipped past a shield. One of our men went down. I am not much as a fighter, but I stepped into his place. Mercy said something snide that I did not catch. “That’s your chance at heaven wasted,” I countered. “You’re out of the Annals forever.”
“Crap. You don’t leave out anything.”
A dozen citizens went down. Blood pooled in low places on the floor. Spectators gathered outside. Soon some adventurer would hit us from behind.
A dagger nicked Mercy. He lost patience. “Silent!”
Silent was on the job already, but he was Silent. That meant no sound, and very little flash or fury.
Mole patrons began slapping their faces and pawing the air, forsaking us. They hopped and danced, grabbed their backs and behinds, squealed and howled piteously. Several collapsed.
“What the hell did you do?” I asked.
Silent grinned, exposing sharp teeth. He passed a dusky paw across my eyes. I saw the Mole from a slightly altered perspective.
The bag he had lugged in from out of town proved to be one of those hornets’ nests you can, if you’re unlucky, run into in the woods south of Beryl. Its tenants were the bumblebee-looking monsters peasants call bald-faced hornets. They have a foul temper unrivalled anywhere in Nature. They cowed the Mole crowd fast, without bothering our lads.
“Fine work, Silent,” Mercy said, after having vented his fury on several hapless patrons. He herded the survivors into the street.
I examined our injured brother while the unharmed soldier finished the wounded. Saving the Syndic the cost of a trial and a hangman, Mercy called that. Silent looked on, still grinning. He’s not nice either, though he seldom participates directly.
We took more prisoners than expected. “Was a bunch of them.” Mercy’s eyes twinkled. “Thanks, Silent.” The line stretched a block.
Fate is a fickle bitch. She’d led us to Mole Tavern at a critical moment. Poking around, our witch man had unearthed a prize, a crowd concealed in a hideout beneath the wine cellar. Among them were some of the best known Blues.
Mercy chattered, wondering aloud how large a reward our informant deserved. No such informant existed. The yammer was meant to save our tame wizards from becoming prime targets. Our enemies would scurry around looking for phantom spies.
“Move them out,” Mercy ordered. Still grinning, he eyed the sullen crowd. “Think they’ll try something?” They did not. His supreme confidence cowed anyone who had ideas.
We wound through mazelike streets half as old as the world, our prisoners shuffling listlessly. I gawked. My comrades are indifferent to the past, but I cannot help being awed—and occasionally intimidated—by how timedeep Beryl’s history runs.
Mercy called an unexpected halt. We had come to the Avenue of the Syndics, which winds from the Customs House uptown to the Bastion’s main gate. There was a procession on the Avenue. Though we reached the intersection first, Mercy yielded the right-of-way.
The procession consisted of a hundred armed men. They looked tougher than anyone in Beryl but us. At their head rode a dark figure on the biggest black stallion I’ve ever seen. The rider was small, effeminately slim, and clad in worn black leather. He wore a black morion which concealed his head entirely. Black gloves concealed his hands. He seemed to be unarmed.
“Damn me,” Mercy whispered.
I was disturbed. That rider chilled me. Something primitive deep inside me wanted to run. But curiosity plagued me more. Who was he? Had he come off that strange ship in the harbor? Why was he here?
The eyeless gaze of the rider swept across us indifferently, as though passing over a flock of sheep. Then it jerked back, fixing on Silent.
Silent met stare for stare, and showed no fear. And still he seemed somehow diminished.
The column passed on, hardened, disciplined. Shaken, Mercy got our mob moving again. We entered the Bastion only yards behind the strangers.
We had arrested most of the more conservative Blue leadership. When word of the raid spread, the volatile types decided to flex their muscles. They sparked something monstrous.
The perpetually abrasive weather does things to men’s reason. The Beryl mob is savage. Riots occur almost without provocation. When things go bad the dead number in the thousands. This was one of the worst times.
The army is half the problem. A parade of weak, shortterm Syndics let discipline lapse. The troops are beyond control now. Generally, though, they will act against rioters. They see riot suppression as license to loot.
The worst happened. Several cohorts from the Fork Barracks demanded a special donative before they would respond to a directive to restore order. The Syndic refused to pay.
The cohorts mutinied.
Mercy’s platoon hastily established a strongpoint near the Rubbish Gate and held off all three cohorts. Most of our men were killed, but none ran. Mercy himself lost an eye, a finger, was wounded in shoulder and hip, and had more than a hundred holes in his shield when help arrived. He came to me more dead than alive.
In the end, the mutineers scattered rather than face the rest of the Black Company.
The riots were the worst in memory. We lost almost a hundred brethren trying to suppress them. We could ill afford the loss of one. In the Groan the streets were carpetted with corpses. The rats grew fat. Clouds of vultures and ravens migrated from the countryside.
The Captain ordered the Company into the Bastion. “Let it run its course,” he said. “We’ve done enough.” His disposition had gone beyond sour, disgusted. “Our commission doesn’t require us to commit suicide.”
Somebody made a crack about us falling on our swords.
“Seems to be what the Syndic expects.”
Beryl had ground our spirits down, but had left none so disillusioned as the Captain. He blamed himself for our losses. He did, in fact, try to resign.
The mob had fallen into a sullen, grudging, desultory effort to sustain chaos, interfering with any attempt to fight fires or prevent looting, but otherwise just roamed. The mutinous cohorts, fattened by deserters from other units, were systematizing the murder and plunder.
The third night I stood a watch on Trejan’s Wall, beneath the carping stars, a fool of a volunteer sentinel. The city was strangely quiet. I might have been more anxious had I not been so tired. It was all I could do to stay awake.
Tom-Tom came by. “What are you doing out here, Croaker?”
“You look like death on a stick. Get some rest.”
“You don’t look good yourself, runt.”
He shrugged. “How’s Mercy?”
“Not out of the woods yet.” I had little hope for him, really. I pointed. “You know anything about that out there?” An isolated scream echoed in the distance. It had a quality which set it aside from otherrecentscreams. Those had been filled with pain, rage, and fear. This one was redolent of something darker.
He hemmed and hawed in that way he and his brother One-Eye have. If you don’t know, they figure it’s a secret worth keeping. Wizards! “There’s a rumor that the mutineers broke the seals on the tomb of the forvalaka while they were plundering the Necropolitan Hill.”
“Uh? Those things are loose?”
“The Syndic thinks so. The Captain don’t take it seriously.”
I didn’t either, though Tom-Tom looked concerned. “They looked tough. The ones who were here the other day.”
“Ought to have recruited them,” he said, with an undertone of sadness. He and One-Eye have been with the Company a long time. They have seen much of its decline.
“Why were they here?”
He shrugged. “Get some rest, Croaker. Don’t kill yourself. Won’t make a bit of difference in the end.” He ambled away, lost in the wilderness of his thoughts.
I lifted an eyebrow. He was way down. I turned back to the fires and lights and disturbing absence of racket. My eyes kept crossing, my vision clouding. Tom-Tom was right. I needed sleep.
From the darkness came another of those strange, hopeless cries. This one was closer.
“Up, Croaker.” The Lieutenant was not gende. “Captain wants you in the officers’ mess.”
I groaned. I cursed. I threatened mayhem in the first degree. He grinned, pinched the nerve in my elbow, rolled me onto the floor. “I’m up already,” I grumbled, feeling around for my boots. “What’s it about?”
He was gone.
“Will Mercy pull through, Croaker?” the Captain asked.
“I don’t think so, but I’ve seen bigger miracles.”
The officers and sergeants were all there. “You want to know what’s happening,” the Captain said. “The visitor the other day was an envoy from overseas. He offered an alliance. The north’s military resources in exchange for the support of Beryl’s fleets. Sounded reasonable to me. But the Syndic is being stubborn. He’s still upset about the conquest of Opal. I suggested he be more flexible. If these northerners are villains then the alliance option could be the least of several evils. Better an ally than a tributary. Our problem is, where do we stand if the legate presses?”
Candy said, “We should refuse if he tells us to fight these northerners?”
“Maybe. Fighting a sorcerer could mean our destruction.”
Wham! The mess door slammed open. A small, dusky, wiry man, preceded by a great humped beak of a nose, blew inside. The Captain bounced up and clicked his heels. “Syndic.”
Our visitor slammed both fists down on the tabletop. “You ordered your men withdrawn into the Bastion. I’m not paying you to hide like whipped dogs.”
“You’re not paying us to become martyrs, either,” the Captain replied in his reasoning-with-fools voice. “We’re a bodyguard, not police. Maintaining order is the task of the Urban Cohorts.”
The Syndic was tired, distraught, frightened, on his last emotional legs. Like everyone else.
“Be reasonable,” the Captain suggested. “Beryl has passed a point of no return. Chaos rules the streets. Any attempt to restore order is doomed. The cure now is the disease.”
I liked that. I had begun to hate Beryl.
The Syndic shrank into himself. “There’s still the forvalaka. And that vulture from the north, waiting off the Island.”
Tom-Tom started out of a half-sleep. “Off the Island, you say?”
“Waiting for me to beg.”
“Interesting.” The little wizard lapsed into semi-slumber.
The Captain and Syndic bickered about the terms of our commission. I produced our copy of the agreement. The Syndic tried to stretch clauses with, “Yeah, but.” Clearly, he wanted to fight if the legate started throwing his weight around.
Elmo started snoring. The Captain dismissed us, resumed arguing with our employer.
I suppose seven hours passes as a night’s sleep. I didn’t strangle Tom-Tom when he wakened me. But I did grouse and crab till he threatened to turn me into a jackass braying at the Gate of Dawn. Only then, after I had dressed and we had joined a dozen others, did I realize that I didn’t have a notion what was happening.
“We’re going to look at a tomb,” Tom-Tom said.
“Huh?” I am none too bright some mornings.
“We’re going to the Necropolitan Hill to eyeball that forvalaka tomb.”
“Now wait a minute. . . . ”
“Chicken? I always thought you were, Croaker.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll have three top wizards along, with nothing to do but babysit your ass. One-Eye would go too, but the Captain wants him to hang around.”
“Why is what I want to know.”
“To find out if vampires are real. They could be a put-up from yon spook ship.”
“Neat trick. Maybe we should have thought of it.” The forvalaka threat had done what no force of arms could: stilled the riots.
Tom-Tom nodded. He dragged fingers across the little drum that gave him his name. I filed the thought. He’s worse than his brother when it comes to admitting shortcomings.
The city was as still as an old battlefield. Like a battlefield, it was filled with stench, flies, scavengers, and the dead. The only sound was the tread of our boots and, once, the mournful cry of a sad dog standing sentinel over its fallen master. “The price of order,” I muttered. I tried to run the dog off. It wouldn’t budge.
“The cost of chaos,” Tom-Tom countered. Thump on his drum. “Not quite the same thing, Croaker.”
The Necropolitan Hill is taller than the heighth on which the Bastion stands. From the Upper Enclosure, where the mausoleums of the wealthy stand, I could see the northern ship.
“Just lying out there waiting,” Tom-Tom said. “Like the Syndic said.”
“Why don’t they just move in? Who could stop them?”
Tom-Tom shrugged. Nobody else offered an opinion.
We reached the storied tomb. It looked the part it played in rumor and legend. It was very, very old, definitely lightning-blasted, and scarred with tool marks. One thick oak door had burst asunder. Toothpicks and fragments lay scattered for a dozen yards around.
Goblin, Tom-Tom, and Silent put their heads together. Somebody made a crack about that way they might have a brain between them. Goblin and Silent then took stations flanking the door, a few steps back. Tom-Tom faced it head on. He shuffled around like a bull about to charge, found his spot, dropped into a crouch with his arms flung up oddly, like a parody of a martial arts master.
“How about you fools open the door?” he growled. “Idiots. I had to bring idiots.” Wham-wham on the drum. “Stand around with their fingers in their noses.”
A couple of us grabbed die ruined door and heaved. It was too warped to give much. Tom-Tom rapped his drum, let out a villainous scream, and jumped inside. Goblin bounced to the portal behind him. Silent moved up in a fast glide.
Inside, Tom-Tom let out a rat squeak and started sneezing. He stumbled out, eyes watering, grinding his nose with the heels of his hands. He sounded like he had a bad cold when he said, “Wasn’t a trick.” His ebony skin had gone grey.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
He jerked a thumb toward the tomb. Goblin and Silent were inside now. They started sneezing.
I sidled to the doorway, peeked. I couldn’t see squat. Just dust thick in the sunlight close to me. Then I stepped inside. My eyes adjusted.
There were bones everywhere. Bones in heaps, bones in stacks, bones sorted neatly by something insane. Strange bones they were, similar to those of men, but of weird proportion to my physician’s eye. There must have been fifty bodies originally. They’d really packed them in, back when. Forvalaka for sure, then, because Beryl buries its villains uncremated.
There were fresh corpses too. I counted seven dead soldiers before the sneezing started. They wore the colors of a mutinous cohort.
I dragged a body outside, let go, stumbled a few steps, was noisily sick. When I regained control, I turned back to examine my booty.
The others stood around looking green. “No phantom did that,” Goblin said. Tom-Tom bobbed his head. He was more shaken than anyone. More shaken than the sight demanded, I thought.
Silent got on with business, somehow conjuring a brisk, small maid of a breeze that scurried in through the mausoleum door and bustled out again, skirts laden with dust and the smell of death.
“You all right?” I asked Tom-Tom.
He eyed my medical kit and waved me off. “I’ll be okay. I was just remembering.”
I gave him a minute, then prodded, “Remembering?”
“We were boys, One-Eye and me. They’d just sold us to N’Gamo, to become his apprentices. A messenger came from a village back in the hills.” He knelt beside the dead soldier. “The wounds are identical.”
I was rattled. Nothing human killed that way, yet the damage seemed deliberate, calculated, the work of a malign intelligence. That made it more horrible.
I swallowed, knelt, began my examination. Silent and Goblin eased into the tomb. Goblin had a little amber ball of light rolling around his cupped hands. “No bleeding,” I observed.
“It takes the blood,” Tom-Tom said. Silent dragged another corpse out. “And the organs when it has time.” The second body had been split from groin to gullet. Heart and liver were missing.
Silent went back inside. Goblin came out. He settled on a broken grave marker and shook his head. “Well?” Tom-Tom demanded.
“Definitely the real thing. No prank by our friend.” He pointed. The northerner continued its patrol amidst a swarm of fishermen and coasters. “There were fifty-four of them sealed up here. They ate each other. This was the last one left.”
Tom-Tom jumped as if slapped.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“That means the thing was the nastiest, cunningest, crudest, and craziest of the lot.”
“Vampires,” I muttered. “In this day.”
Tom-Tom said, “Not strictly a vampire. This is the wereleopard, the man-leopard who walks on two legs by day and on four by night.”
I’d heard of werewolves and werebears. The peasants around my home city tell such tales. I’d never heard of a wereleopard. I told Tom-Tom as much.
“The man-leopard is from the far south. The jungle.” He stared out to sea. “They have to be buried alive.”
Silent deposited another corpse.
Blood-drinking, liver-eating wereleopards. Ancient, darkness-wise, filled with a milienium of hatred and hunger. The stuff of nightmare all right. “Can you handle it?”
“N’Gamo couldn’t. I’ll never be his match, and he lost an arm and a foot trying to destroy a young male. What we have here is an old female. Bitter, cruel, and clever. The four of us might hold her off. Conquer her, no.”
“But if you and One-Eye know this thing. . . . ”
“No.” He had the shakes. He gripped his drum so tight it creaked. “We can’t.”
Chaos died. Beryl’s streets remained as starkly silent as those of a city overthrown. Even the mutineers concealed themselves till hunger drove them to the city granaries.
The Syndic tried to tighten the screws on the Captain. The Captain ignored him. Silent, Goblin, and One-Eye tracked the monster. The thing functioned on a purely animal level, feeding the hunger of an age. The factions besieged the Syndic with demands for protection.
The Lieutenant again summoned us to the officers’ mess. The Captain wasted no time. “Men, our situation is grim.” He paced. “Beryl is demanding a new Syndic. Every faction has asked the Black Company to stand aside.”
The moral dilemma escalated with the stakes.
“We aren’t heroes,” the Captain continued. “We’re tough. We’re stubborn. We try to honor our commitments. But we don’t die for lost causes.”
I protested, the voice of tradition questioning his unspoken proposition.
“The question on the table is the survival of the Company, Croaker.”
“We have taken the gold, Captain. Honor is the question on the table. For four centuries the Black Company has met the letter of its commissions. Consider the Book of Set, recordedby Annalist Coral while the Company was in service to the Archon of Bone, during the Revolt of the Chiliarchs.”
“You consider it, Croaker.”
I was irritated. “I stand on my right as a free soldier.”
“He has the right to speak,” the Lieutenant agreed. He is more a traditionalist than I.
“Okay. Let him talk. We don’t have to listen.”
I reiterated that darkest hour in the Company’s history. . . till I realized I was arguing with myself. Half of me wanted to sell out.
“Croaker? Are you finished?”
I swallowed. “Find a legitimate loophole and I’ll go along.”
Tom-Tom gave me a mocking drumroll. One-Eye chuckled. “That’s a job for Goblin, Croaker. He was a lawyer before he worked his way up to pimping.”
Goblin took the bait. “I was a lawyer? Your mother was a lawyer’s. . . . ”
“Enough!” The Captain slapped the tabletop. “We’ve got Croaker’s okay. Go with it. Find an out.”
The others looked relieved. Even the Lieutenant. My opinion, as Annalist, carried more weight than I liked.
“The obvious out is the termination of the man holding our bond,” I observed. That hung in the air like an old, foul smell. Like the stench in the tomb of the forvalaka. “In our battered state, who could blame us if an assassin slipped past?”
“You have a disgusting turn of mind, Croaker,” TomTom said. He gave me another drumroll.
“Pots calling kettles? We’d retain the appearance of honor. We do fail. As often as not.”
“I like it,” the Captain said. “Let’s break this up before the Syndic comes asking what’s up. You stay, Tom-Tom. I’ve got a job for you.”
It was a night for screamers. A broiling, sticky night of the sort that abrades that last thin barrier between the civilized man and the monster crouched in his soul. The screams came from homes where fear, heat, and overcrowding had put too much strain on the monster’s chains.
A cool wind roared in off the gulf, pursued by massive storm clouds with lightning prancing in their hair. The wind swept away the stench of Beryl. The downpour scoured its streets. By morning’s light Beryl seemed a different city, still and cool and clean.
The streets were speckled with puddles as we walked to the waterfront. Runoff still chuckled in the gutters. By noon the air would be leaden again, and more humid than ever.
Tom-Tom awaited us on a boat he had hired. I said, “How much did you pocket on this deal? This scow looks like it’d sink before it cleared the Island.”
“Not a copper, Croaker.” He sounded disappointed. He and his brother are great pilferers and black-marketeers. “Not a copper. This here is a slicker job than it looks. Her master is a smuggler.”
I’ll take your word. You’d probably know.“ Nevertheless, I stepped gingerly as I boarded. He scowled. We were supposed to pretend that the avarice of Tom-Tom and One-Eye did not exist.
We were off to sea to make an arrangement. Tom-Tom had the Captain’s carte blanche. The Lieutenant and I were along to give him a swift kick if he got carried away. Silent and a half dozen soldiers accompanied us for show.
A customs launch hailed us off the Island. We were gone before she could get underway. I squatted, peered under the boom. The black ship loomed bigger and bigger. ”That damned tiling is a floating island.“
”Too big,“ the Lieutenant growled. ”Ship that size couldn’t hold together in a heavy sea.“
”Why not? How do you know?“ Even boggled I remained curious about my brethren.
”Sailed as a cabin boy when I was young. I learned ships.“ His tone discouraged further interrogation. Most of the men want their antecedants kept private. As you might expect in a company of villains held together by its now and its us-against-the-world gone befores.
”Not too big if you have the thaumaturgic craft to bind it,“ Tom-Tom countered. He was shaky, tapping his drum in random, nervous rhythms. He and One-Eye both hated water.
So. A mysterious northern enchanter. A ship as black as the floors of hell. My nerves began to fray.
Her crew dropped an accomodation ladder. The Lieutenant scampered up. He seemed impressed.
I’m no sailor, but the ship did look squared away and disciplined.
A junior officer sorted out Tom-Tom, Silent, and myself and asked us to accompany him. He led us down stairs and through passageways, aft, without speaking.
The northern emissary sat crosslegs amidst rich cushions, backed by the ship’s open stemlights, in a cabin worthy of an eastern potentate. I gaped. Tom-Tom smouldered with avarice. The emissary laughed.
The laughter was a shock. A high-pitched near giggle more appropriate to some fifteen year old madonna of the tavern night than to a man more powerful than any king. ”Excuse me,“ he said, placing a hand daintily where his mouth would have been had he not been wearing that black morion. Then, ”Be seated.“
My eyes widened against my will. Each remark came in a distinctly different voice. Was there a committee inside that helmet?
Tom-Tom gulped air. Silent, being Silent, simply sat. I followed his example, and tried not to become too offensive with my frightened, curious stare.
Tom-Tom wasn’t the best diplomat that day. He blurted, ”The Syndic won’t last much longer. We want to make an arrangement. . . . “
Silent dug a toe into his thigh.
I muttered, ”This is our daring prince of thieves? Our man of iron nerve?“
The legate chuckled. ”You’re the physician? Croaker? Pardon him. He knows me.“
A cold, cold fear enfolded me in its dark wings. Sweat moistened my temples. It had nothing to do with heat. A cool sea breeze flowed through the stemlights, a breeze for which men in Beryl would kill.
”There is no cause to fear me. I was sent to offer an alliance meant to benefit Beryl as much as my people. I remain convinced that agreement can be forged—though not with the current autocrat. You face a problem requiring the same solution as mine, but your commission puts you in a narrow place.“
”He knows it all. No point talking,“ Tom-Tom croaked. He thumped his drum, but his fetish did him no good. He was choking up.
The legate observed, ”The Syndic is not invulnerable. Even guarded by you.“ A great big cat had Tom-Tom’s tongue. The envoy looked at me. I shrugged. ”Suppose the Syndic expired while your company was defending the Bastion against the mob?“
”Ideal,“ I said. ”But it ignores the question of our subsequent safety.“
”You drive the mob off, then discover the death. You’re no longer employed, so you leave Beryl.“
”And go where? And outrun our enemies how? The Urban Cohorts would pursue us.“
”Tell your Captain that, on discovery of the Syndic’s demise, if I receive a written request to mediate the succession, my forces will relieve you at the Bastion. You should leave Beryl and camp on the Pillar of Anguish.“
The Pillar of Anguish is an arrowhead of a chalk headland wormholed with countless little caverns. It thrusts out to sea a day’s march east of Beryl. A lighthouse/watchtower stands there. The name comes from the moaning the wind makes passing through the caverns.
”That’s a goddamned deathtrap. Those bugger-masters would just besiege us and giggle till we ate each other.“
”A simple matter to slip boats in and take you off.“
Ding-ding. An alarm bell banged away four inches behind my eyes. This sumbitch was running a game on us. ”Why the hell would you do that?“
”Your company would be unemployed. I would be willing to assume the commission. There is a need for good soldiers in the north.“
Ding-ding. That old bell kept singing. He wanted to take us on? What for?
Something told me that was not the moment to ask. I shifted my ground. ”What about the forvalaka?“ Zig when they expect you to zag.
”The thing out of the crypt?“ The envoy’s voice was that of the woman of your dreams, purring ”come on.“ ”I may have work for it too.“
”You’ll get it under control?“
”Once it serves its purpose.“
I thought of the lightning bolt that had obliterated a spell of confinement on a plaque that had resisted tampering for a millenium. I kept my suspicions off my face, I’m sure. But the emissary chuckled. ”Maybe, physician. Maybe not. An interesting puzzle, no? Go back to your captain. Make up your minds. Quickly. Your enemies are ready to move.“ He made a gesture that dismissed us.
”Just deliver the case!“ the Captain snarled at Candy. ”Then get your butt back here.“
Candy took the courier case and went.
”Anybody else want to argue? You bastards had your chance to get rid of me. You blew it.“
Tempers were hot. The Captain had made the legate a counter-proposal, been offered his patronage should the Syndic perish. Candy was running the Captain’s reply to the envoy.
Tom-Tom muttered, ”You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know who you’re signing with.“
”Illuminate me. No? Croaker. What’s it like out there?“ I had been sent to scout the city.
”It’s plague all right. Not like any I’ve seen before, though. The forvalaka must be the vector.“
The Captain gave me the squinty eye.
”Doctor talk. A vector is a carrier. The plague comes in pockets around its kills.“
The Captain growled, ”Tom-Tom? You know this beast.“
”Never heard of one spreading disease. And all of us who went into the tomb are still healthy.“
I chimed in, ”The carrier doesn’t matter. The plague does. It’ll get worse if people don’t start burning bodies.“
”It hasn’t penetrated the Bastion,“ the Captain observed. ”And it’s had a positive effect. The regular garrison have stopped deserting.“
”I encountered a lot of antagonism in the Groan. They’re on the edge of another explosion.“
”Two days? Three at the outside.“
The Captain chewed his lip. The tight place was getting tighter. ”We’ve got to. . . .“
A tribune of the garrison shoved through the door. ”There’s a mob at the gate. They have a ram.“
”Let’s go,“ the Captain said.
It took only minutes to disperse them. A few missiles and a few pots of hot water. They fled, pelting us with curses and insults.
Night fell. I stayed on the wall, watching distant torches roam the city. The mob was evolving, developing a nervous system. If it developed a brain we would find ourselves caught in a revolution.
The movement of torches eventually diminished. The explosion would not come tonight. Maybe tomorrow, if the heat and humidity became too oppressive.
Later I heard scratching to my right. Then clackings. Scrapings. Softly, softly, but there. Approaching. Terror filled me. I became as motionless as the gargoyles perched over the gate. The breeze became an arctic wind.
Something came over the battlements. Red eyes. Four legs. Dark as the night. Black leopard. It moved as fluidly as water running downhill. It padded down the stair into the courtyard, vanished.
The monkey in my backbrain wanted to scamper up a tall tree, screeching, to hurl excreipent and rotted fruit. I fled toward the nearest door, took a protected route to the Captain’s quarters, let myself in without knocking.
I found him on his cot, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. His room was illuminated by a single feeble candle. ”The forvalaka is in the Bastion. I saw it come over the wall.“ My voice squeaked like Goblin’s.
”You hear me?“
”I heard, Croaker. Go away. Leave me alone.“
”Yes sir.“ So. It was eating him up. I backed toward the door. . . .
The scream was loud and long and hopeless, and ended abruptly. It came from the Syndic’s quarters. I drew my sword, charged through the door—smack into Candy. Candy went down. I stood over him, numbly wondering why he was back so soon.
”Get in here, Croaker,“ the Captain ordered. ”Want to get yourself killed?“ There were more cries from the Syndic’s quarters. Death was not being selective.
I yanked Candy inside. We bolted and barred the door. I stood with my back against it, eyes closed, panting. Chances are it was imagination, but I thought I heard something growl as it padded past.
”Now what?“ Candy asked. His face was colorless. His hands were shaking.
The Captain finished scribbling a letter. He handed it over. ”Now you go back.“
Someone hammered on the door. ”What?“ the Captain snapped.
A voice muted by thick wood responded. I said, ”It’s One-Eye.“
I opened. One-Eye, Tom-Tom, Goblin, Silent, and a dozen others pushed inside. The room got hot and tight. Tom-Tom said, ”The man-leopard is in the Bastion, Captain.“ He forgot to punctuate with his drum. It seemed to droop at his hip.
Another scream from the Syndic’s quarters. My imagination had tricked me.
”What’re we going to do?“ One-Eye asked. He was a wrinkled little black man no bigger than his brother, usually possessed by a bizarre sense of humor. He was a year older than Tom-Tom, but at their age no one was counting. Both were over a hundred, if the Annals could be believed. He was terrified. Tom-Tom was on the edge of hysteria. Goblin and Silent, too, were rocky. ”It can take us off one by one.“
”Can it be killed?“
”They’re almost invincible, Captain.“
”Can they be killed?“ The Captain put a hard edge on his voice. He was frightened too.
”Yes,“ One-Eye confessed. He seemed a whisker less scared than Tom-Tom. ”Nothing is invulnerable. Not even that thing on the black ship. But this is strong, fast, and smart. Weapons are of little avail. Sorcery is better, but even that isn’t much use.“ Never before had I heard him admit limitations.
”We’ve talked enough,“ the Captain growled. ”Now we act.“ He was difficult to know, our commander, but was transparent now. Rage and frustration at an impossible situation had fixed on the forvalaka.
Tom-Tom and One-Eye protested vehemently.
”You’ve been thinking about this since you found out that thing was loose,“ the Captain said. ”You decided what you’d do if you had to. Let’s do it.“
Another scream. ”The Paper Tower must be an abattoir,“ I muttered. ”The thing is hunting down everybody up there.“
For a moment I thought even Silent would protest.
The Captain strapped on his weapons. ”Match, assemble the men. Seal all the entrances to the Paper Tower. Elmo, pick some good halberdiers and crossbowmen. Quarrels to be poisoned.“
Twenty minutes fled. I lost count of the cries. I lost track of everything but a growing trepidation and the question, why had the forvalaka invaded the Bastion? Why did it persist in its hunt? More than hunger drove it.
That legate had hinted at having a use for it. What? This? What were we doing working with someone who could do that?
All four wizards collaborated on the spell that preceded us, crackling. The air itself threw blue sparks. Halberdiers followed. Crossbowmen backed them. Behind them another dozen of us entered the Syndic’s quarters.
Anticlimax. The antechamber to the Paper Tower looked perfectly normal. ”It’s upstairs,“ One-Eye told us.
The Captain faced the passageway behind us. ”Match, bring your men inside.“ He planned to advance room by room, sealing all exits but one for retreat. One-Eye and Tom-Tom did not approve. They said the thing would be more dangerous cornered. Ominous silence surrounded us. There had been no cries for several minutes.
We found the first victim at the base of the stair leading into the Tower proper. ”One of ours,“ I grumbled. The Syndic always surrounded himself with a squad from the Company. ”Sleeping quarters upstairs?“ I’d never been inside the Paper Tower.
The Captain nodded. ”Kitchen level, stores level, servants’ quarters on two levels, then family, then the Syndic himself. Library and offices at the top. Wants to make it hard to get to him.“
I examined the body. ”Not quite like the ones at the tomb. Tom-Tom. It didn’t take the blood or organs. How come?“
He had no answer. Neither did One-Eye.
The Captain peered into the shadows above. ”Now it gets tricky. Halberdiers, one step at a time. Keep your points low. Crossbows, stay four or five steps behind. Shoot anything that moves. Swords out, everybody. OneEye, run your spell ahead.“
Crackle. Step, step, quietly. Stench of fear. Quang! A man discharged his crossbow accidentally. The Captain spit and grumbled like a volcano in bad temper.
There wasn’t a damned thing to see.
Servants’ quarters. Blood splashed the walls. Bodies and pieces of bodies lay everywhere amidst furniture invariably shredded and wrecked. There are hard men in the Company, but even the hardest was moved. Even I, who as physician see the worst the battlefield offers.
The Lieutenant said, ”Captain, I’m getting the rest of the Company. This thing isn’t getting away.“ His tone brooked no contradiction. The Captain merely nodded.
The carnage had that effect. Fear faded somewhat. Most of us decided the thing had to be destroyed.
A scream sounded above. It was like a taunt hurled our way, daring us to come on. Hard-eyed men started up the stair. The air crackled as the spell preceded them. TomTom and One-Eye bore down on their terror. The death hunt began in earnest.
A vulture had evicted the eagle nesting atop the Paper Tower, a fell omen indeed. I had no hope for our employer.
We climbed past five levels. It was gorily obvious the forvalaka had visited each. . . .
Tom-Tom whipped up a hand, pointed. The forvalaka was nearby. The halberdiers knelt behind their weapons. The crossbowmen aimed at shadows. Tom-Tom waited half a minute. He, One-Eye, Silent, and Goblin posed intently, listening to something the rest of the world could only imagine. Then, ”It’s waiting. Be careful. Don’t give it an opening.“
I asked a dumb question, altogether too late for its answer to have bearing. ”Shouldn’t we use silver weapons? Quarrel heads and blades?“
Tom-Tom looked baffled.
”Where I come from the peasants say you have to kill werewolves with silver.“
”Crap. You kill them same as you kill anything else. Only you move faster and hit harder ’cause you only get one shot.“
The more he revealed the less terrible the creature seemed. This was like hunting a rogue lion. Why all the fuss?
I recalled the servant’s quarters.
”Everybody just stand still,“ Tom-Tom said. ”And be quiet. We’ll try a sending.“ He and his cohorts put their heads together. After a while he indicated we should resume our advance.
We eased onto a landing, packed tightly, a human hedgehog with quills of steel. The wizards sped their enchantment. An angry roar came from the shadows ahead, followed by the scrape of claws. Something moved. Crossbows twanged. Another roar, almost mocking. The wizards put their heads together again. Downstairs the Lieutenant was ordering men into positions the forvalaka would have to pass to escape.
We eased into the darkness, tension mounting. Bodies and blood made the footing treacherous. Men hastened to seal doors. Slowly, we penetrated a suite of offices. Twice movement drew fire from the crossbows.
The forvalaka yowled not twenty feet away. Tom-Tom released a sigh that was half groan. ”Caught it,“ he said, meaning they had reached it with their spell.
Twenty feet away. Right there with us. I could see nothing. . . . Something moved. Quarrels flew. A man cried out. . . . ”Damn!“ the Captain swore. ”Somebody was still alive up here.“
Something as black as the heart of night, as quick as unexpected death, arced over the halberds. I had one thought, Fast!, before it was among us. Men flew around, yelled, got into one another’s way. The monster roared and growled, threw claws and fangs too fast for the eye to follow. Once I thought I slashed a flank of darkness, before a blow hurled me a dozen feet.
I scrambled up, got my back to a pillar. I was sure I was going to die, sure the thing would kill us all. Pure hubris, us thinking we could handle it. Only seconds had passed. Half a dozen men were dead. More were injured. The forvalaka didn’t seem slowed, let alone harmed. Neither weapons nor spells hampered it.
Our wizards stood in a little knot, trying to produce another enchantment. The Captain cored a second clump. The rest of the men were scattered. The monster flashed around, picking them off.
Grey fire ripped through the room, for an instant exposing its entirety, branding the carnage on the backs of my eyeballs. The forvalaka screamed, this time with genuine pain. Point for the wizards.
It streaked toward me. I hacked in panic as it whipped past. I missed. It whirled, took a running start, leapt at the wizards. They met it with another flashy spell. The forvalaka howled. A man shrieked. The beast thrashed on the floor like a dying snake. Men stabbed it with pikes and swords. It regained its feet and streaked out the exit we had kept open for ourselves.
”It’s coming!“ the Captain bellowed to the Lieutenant.
I sagged, knowing nothing but relief. It was gone. . . . Before my butt hit the floor One-Eye was dragging me up. 4 4 Come on, Croaker. It hit Tom-Tom. You got to help.”
I staggered over, suddenly aware of a shallow gash down one leg. 4’Better clean it good,“ I muttered. ”Those claws are bound to be filthy.“
Tom-Tom was a twist of human wreckage. His throat had been torn out, his belly opened. His arms and chest had been ripped to the bone. Amazingly, he was still alive, but there was nothing I could do. Nothing any physician could have done. Not even a master sorcerer, specializing in healing, could have salvaged the little black man. But One-Eye insisted I try, and try I did till the Captain dragged me off to attend men less certain of dying. OneEye was bellowing at him as I left.
”Get some lights in here!“ I ordered. At the same time the Captain began assembling the uninjured at the open doorway, telling them to hold it.
As the light grew stronger the extent of the debacle became more evident. We had been decimated. Moreover, a dozen brothers who had not been with us lay scattered around the chamber. They had been on duty. Among them were as many more of the Syndic’s secretaries and advisers.
”Anybody see the Syndic?“ the Captain demanded. ”He must have been here.“ He and Match and Elmo started searching. I did not have much chance to follow that. I patched and sewed like a madman, comandeering all the help I could. The forvalaka left deep claw wounds which required careful and skillful suturing.
Somehow, Goblin and Silent managed to calm One-Eye enough so he could help. Maybe they did something to him. He worked in a daze barely this side of unconsciousness.
I took another look at Tom-Tom when I got a chance. He was still alive, clutching his little drum. Damn! That much stubbornness deserved reward. But how? My expertise simply was not adequate.
”Yo!“ Match shouted. ”Captain!“ I glanced over. He was tapping a chest with his sword.
The chest was of stone. It was a strongbox of a type favored by Beryl’s wealthy. I guess this one weighed five hundred pounds. Its exterior had been fancifully carved. Most of the decoration had been demolished. By the tearing of claws?
Elmo smashed the lock and pried the lid open. I glimpsed a man lying atop gold and jewels, arms around his head, shaking. Elmo and the Captain exchanged grim looks.
I was distracted by the Lieutenant’s arrival. He had held on downstairs till he got worried about nothing having happened. The forvalaka had not gone down.
”Search the tower,“ the Captain told him. ”Maybe it went up.“ There were a couple levels above us.
When next I glanced at the chest it was closed again. Our employer was nowhere in evidence. Match was seated atop it, cleaning his nails with a dagger. I eyed the Captain and Elmo. There was something the slightest bit odd about them.
They would not have finished the forvalaka’s task for her, would they? No. The Captain couldn’t betray Company ideals that way. Could he?
I did not ask.
The search of the tower revealed nothing but a trail of blood leading to the tower top, where the forvalaka had lain gathering strength. It had been badly hurt, but it had escaped by descending the outer face of the tower.
Someone suggested we track it. To that the Captain replied, ”We’re leaving Beryl. We’re no longer employed. We have to get out before the city turns on us.“ He sent Match and Elmo to keep an eye on the native garrison. The rest evacuated the wounded from the Paper Tower.
For several minutes I remained unchaperoned. I eyed the big stone chest. Temptation arose, but I resisted. I did not want to know.
Candy got back after all the excitement. He told us the legate was at the pier offloading his troops.
The men were packing and loading, some muttering about events in the Paper Tower, others bitching about having to leave. You stop moving and immediately put down roots. You accumulate things. You find a woman. Then the inevitable happens and you have to leave it all. There was a lot of pain floating around our barracks.
I was at the gate when the northerners came. I helped turn tiie capstan that raised the portcullus. I felt none too proud. Without my approval the Syndic might never have been betrayed.
The legate occupied the Bastion. The Company began its evacuation. It was then about the third hour after midnight and the streets were deserted.
Two-thirds of the way to the Gate of Dawn the Captain ordered a halt. The sergeants assembled everyone able to fight. The rest continued with the wagons.
The Captain took us north on the Avenue of the Older Empire, where Beryl’s emperors had memorialized themselves and their triumphs. Many of the monuments are bizarre, and celebrate such minutia as favorite horses, gladiators, or lovers of either sex.
I had a bad feeling even before we reached the Rubbish Gate. Uneasiness grew into suspicion, and suspicion blossomed into grim certainty as we entered the martial fields. There is nothing near the Rubbish Gate but the Fork Barracks.
The Captain made no specific declaration. When we reached the Fork compound every man knew what was afoot.
The Urban Cohorts were as sloppy as ever. The compound gate was open and the lone watchman was asleep. We trooped inside unresisted. The Captain began assigning tasks.
Between five and six thousand men remained there. Their officers had restored some discipline, having enticed them intorestoringtheir weapons to the armories. Traditionally, Beryl’s captains trust their men with weapons only on the eve of battle.
Three platoons moved directly into the barracks, killing men in their beds. The remaining platoon established a blocking position at the far end of the compound.
The sun was up before the Captain was satisfied. We withdrew and hurried after our baggage train. There wasn’t a man among us who hadn’t had his fill.
We were not pursued, of course. No one came besieging the camp we established on the Pillar of Anguish. Which was what it was all about. That and the release of several years of pent-up anger.
Elmo and I stood at the tip of the headland, watching the afternoon sun play around the edges of a storm far out to sea. It had danced in and swamped our encampment with its cool deluge, then had rolled off across the water again. It was beautiful, though not especially colorful.
Elmo had not had much to say recently. ”Something eating you, Elmo?“ The storm moved in front of the light, giving the sea the look of rusted iron. I wondered if the cool had reached Beryl.
”Reckon you can guess, Croaker.“
”Reckon I can.“ The Paper Tower. The Fork Barracks. Our ignoble treatment of our commission. ”What do you think it will be like, north of the sea?“
”Think the black witch will come, eh?“
”He’ll come, Elmo. He’s just having trouble getting his puppets to jig to his tune.“ As who did not, trying to tame that insane city?
”Uhm.“ And, ”Look there.“
A pod of whales plunged past rocks lying off the headland. I tried to appear unimpressed, and failed. The beasts were magnificent, dancing in the iron sea.
We sat down with our backs toward the lighthouse. It seemed we looked at a world never defiled by Man. Sometimes I suspect it would be better for our absence.
”Ship out there,“ Elmo said.
I didn’t see it till its sail caught the fire of the afternoon sun, becoming an orange triangle edged with gold, rocking and bobbing with the rise and fall of the sea. ”Coaster. Maybe a twenty tonner.“
”For a coaster. Deep water ships sometimes run eighty tons.“
Time pranced along, fickle and faggoty. We watched ship and whales. I began to daydream. For the hundredth time I tried to imagine the new land, building upon traders’ tales heard secondhand. We would likely cross to Opal. Opal was a reflection of Beryl, they said, though a younger city. . . .
”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.“
”That’s debatable, Croaker. Debatable.“
I went back to staring tomorrow in the face. Better than looking backward. But tomorrow refused to shed its mask.
”She’s coming around,“ Elmo said.
”What? Oh.“ The coaster wallowed in the swell, barely making way, while her bows swung toward the strand below our camp.
”Want to tell the Captain?“
”I expect he knows. The men in the lighthouse.“
”Keep an eye out in case anything else turns up.“
The storm was sliding to the west now, obscuring that horizon and blanketing the sea with its shadow. The cold grey sea. Suddenly, I was terrified of the crossing.
That coaster brought news from smuggler friends of Tom-Tom and One-Eye. One-Eye became even more dour and surly after he received them, and he had reached all time lows already. He even eschewed squabbling with Goblin, which he made a second career. Tom-Tom’s death had hit him hard, and would not turn loose. He would not tell us what his friends had to say.
The Captain was little better. His temper was an abomination. I think he both longed for and dreaded the new land. The commission meant potential rebirth for the Company, with our sins left behind, yet he had an intimation of the service we were entering. He suspected the Syndic had been right about the northern empire.
The day following the smuggler’s visit brought cool northern breezes. Fog nuzzled the skirts of the headland early in the evening. Shortly after nightfall, coming out of that fog, a boat grounded on the beach. The legate had come.
We gathered our things and began taking leave of camp followers who had trickled out from the city. Our animals and equipment would be their reward for faith and friendship. I spent a sad, gentle hour with a woman to whom I meant more than I suspected. We shed no tears and told one another no lies. I left her with memories and most of my pathetic fortune. She left me with a lump in my throat and a sense of loss not wholly fathomable.
”Come on, Croaker,“ I muttered as I clambered down to the beach. ”You’ve been through this before. You’ll forget her before you get to Opal.“
A half dozen boats were drawn up on the strand. As each filled northern sailors shoved it into the surf. Oarsmen drove it into the waves, and in seconds it vanished into the fog. Empty boats came bobbing in. Every other boat carried equipment and possessions.
A sailor who spoke the language of Beryl told me there was plenty of room aboard the black ship. The legate had left his troops in Beryl as guards for the new puppet Syndic, who was another Red distantly related to the man we had served.
”Hope they have less trouble than we did,“ I said, and went away to brood.
The legate was trading his men for us. I suspected we were going to be used, that we were headed into something grimmer than we could imagine.
Several times during the wait I heard a distant howl. At first I thought it the song of the Pillar. But the air was not moving. When it came again I lost all doubt. My skin crawled.
The quartermaster, the Captain, the Lieutenant, Silent, Goblin, One-Eye, and I waited till the last boat. ”I’m not going,“ One-Eye announced as a boatswain beckoned us to board.
”Get in,“ the Captain told him. His voice was gentle. That is when he is dangerous.
”I’m resigning. Going to head south. Been gone long enough, they should’ve forgotten me.“
The Captain jabbed a finger at the Lieutenant, Silent, Goblin, and me, jerked his thumb at the boat. One-Eye bellowed. ”I’ll turn the lot of you into ostriches. . . . “ Silent’s hand sealed his mouth. We ran him to the boat. He wriggled like a snake in a firepit.
”You stay with the family,“ the Captain said softly.
”On three,“ Goblin squealed merrily, then quick-counted. The little black man arced into the boat, twisting in flight. He bobbed over the gunwale cursing, spraying us with saliva. We laughed to see him showing some spirit. Goblin led the charge that nailed him to a thwart.
Sailors pushed us off. The moment the oars bit water One-Eye subsided. He had the look of a man headed for the gallows.
The galley took form, a looming, indeterminate shape slightly darker than the surrounding darkness. I heard the fog-hollowed voices of seamen, timbers creaking, tackle working, long before I was sure of my eyes. Our boat nosed in to the foot of an accomodation ladder. The howl came again.
One-Eye tried to dive overboard. We restrained him. The Captain applied a bootheel to his butt. ”You had your chance to talk us out of this. You wouldn’t. Live with it.“
One-Eye slouched as he followed the Lieutenant up the ladder, a man without hope. A man who had left a brother dead and now was being forced to approach that brother’s killer, upon which he was powerless to take revenge.
We found the Company on the maindeck, snuggled amongst mounds of gear. The sergeants threaded the mess toward us.
The legate appeared. I stared. This was the first I had seen him afoot, standing. He was short. Few a moment I wondered if he were male at all. His voices were often otherwise.
He surveyed us with an intensity that suggested he was reading our souls. One of his officers asked the Captain to fall the men in the best he could on the crowded deck. The ship’s crew were taking up the center flats decking over the open well that ran from the bow almost to the stern, and from deck level down to the lower oar bank. Below, there was muttering, clanking, rattling, as the oarsmen wakened.
The legate reviewed us. He paused before each soldier, pinned a reproduction of the device on his sail over each heart. It was slow going. We were under way before he finished.
The nearer the envoy approached, the more One-Eye shook. He almost fainted when the legate pinned him. I was baffled. Why so much emotion?
I was nervous when my turn came, but not frightened. I glanced at the badge as delicate gloved fingers attached it to my jerkin. Skull and circle in silver, on jet, elegantly crafted. A valuable if grim piece of jewelry. Had he not been so rattled, I would have thought One-Eye to be considering how best to pawn it.
The device now seemed vaguely familiar. Outside the context of the sail, which I had taken as showmanship and ignored. Hadn’t I read or heard about a similar seal somewhere?
The legate said, ”Welcome to the service of the Lady, physician.“ His voice was distracting. It did not fit expectations, ever. This time it was musical, lilting, the voice of a young woman putting something over on wiser heads.
The Lady? Where had I encountered that word used that way, emphasized as though it was the title of a goddess? A dark legend out of olden times. . . .
A howl of outrage, pain, and despair filled the ship. Startled, I broke ranks and went to the lip of the air well.
The forvalaka was in a big iron cage at the foot of the mast. In the shadows it seemed to change subtly as it prowled, testing every bar. One moment it was an athletic woman of about thirty, but seconds later it had assumed the aspect of a black leopard on its hind legs, clawing the imprisoning iron. I recalled the legate saying he might have a use for the monster.
I faced him. And the memory came. A devil’s hammer drove spikes of ice into the belly of my soul. I knew why One-Eye did not want to cross the sea. The ancient evil of the north. . . . ”I thought you people died three hundred years ago.“
The legate laughed. ”You don’t know your history well enough. We weren’t destroyed. Just chained and buried alive.“ His laughter had an hysterical edge. ”Chained, buried, and eventually liberated by a fool named Bomanz, Croaker.“
I dropped to my haunches beside One-Eye, who buried his face in his hands.
The legate, the terror called Soulcatcher in old tales, a devil worse than any dozen forvalaka, laughed madly. His crewmen cringed. A great joke, enlisting the Black Company in the service of evil. A great city taken and little villains suborned. A truly cosmic jest.
The Captain settled beside me. ”Tell me, Croaker.“
So I told him about the Domination, and the Dominator and his Lady. Their rule had spanned an empire of evil unrivalled in Hell. I told him about the Ten Who Were Taken (of whom Soulcatcher was one), ten great wizards, near-demigods in their power, who had been overcome by the Dominator and compelled into his service. I told him about the White Rose, the lady general who had brought the Domination down, but whose power had been insufficient to destroy the Dominator, his Lady, and the Ten. She had interred the lot in a charm-bound barrow somewhere north of the sea.
”And now they’re restored to life, it seems,“ I said. ”They rule the northern empire. Tom-Tom and One-Eye must have suspected. . . . We’ve enlisted in their service.“
”Taken,“ he murmured. ”Rather like the forvalaka.“
The beast screamed and hurled itself against the bars of its cage. Soulcatcher’s laughter drifted across the foggy deck. ”Taken by the Taken,“ I agreed. ”The parallel is uncomfortable.“ I had begun to shake as more and more old tales surfaced in my mind.
The Captain sighed and stared into the fog, toward the new land.
One-Eye stared at the thing in the cage, hating. I tried to ease him away. He shook me off. ”Not yet, Croaker. I have to figure this.“
”This isn’t the one that killed Tom-Tom. It doesn’t have the scars we put on it.”
I turned slowly, studied the legate. He laughed again, looking our way.
One-Eye never figured it out. And I never told him. We have troubles enough.
The Black Company © Glen Cook 1992