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The Fourth Chronicle of the Black Company First Book of the South
By Glen Cook
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1989 Glen Cook
All rights reserved.
We seven remained at the crossroads, watching the dust from the eastern way. Even irrepressible One-Eye and Goblin were stricken by the finality of the hour. Otto's horse whickered. He closed her nostrils with one hand, patted her neck with the other, quieting her. It was a time for contemplation, the final emotional milemark of an era.
Then there was no more dust. They were gone. Birds began to sing, so still did we remain. I took an old notebook from my saddlebag, settled in the road. In a shaky hand I wrote: The end has come. The parting is done. Silent, Darling, and the Torque brothers have taken the road to Lords. The Black Company is no more.
Yet I will continue to keep the Annals, if only because a habit of twenty-five years is so hard to break. And, who knows? Those to whom I am obliged to carry them may find the account interesting. The heart is stilled but the corpse stumbles on. The Company is dead in fact but not in name.
And we, O merciless gods, stand witness to the power of names.
I replaced the book in my saddlebag. "Well, that's that." I swatted the dust off the back of my lap, peered down our own road into tomorrow. A low line of greening hills formed a fencerow over which sheeplike tufts began to bound. "The quest begins. We have time to cover the first dozen miles."
That would leave only seven or eight thousand more.
I surveyed my companions.
One-Eye was the oldest by a century, a wizard, wrinkled and black as a dusty prune. He wore an eyepatch and a floppy, battered black felt hat. That hat seemed to suffer every conceivable misfortune, yet survived every indignity.
Likewise Otto, a very ordinary man. He had been wounded a hundred times and had survived. He almost believed himself favored of the gods.
Otto's sidekick was Hagop, another man with no special color. But another survivor. My glance surprised a tear.
Then there was Goblin. What is there to say of Goblin? The name says it all, and yet nothing? He was another wizard, small, feisty, forever at odds with One-Eye, without whose enmity he would curl up and die. He was the inventor of the frog-faced grin.
We five have been together twenty-some years. We have grown old together. Perhaps we know one another too well. We form limbs of a dying organism. Last of a mighty, magnificent, storied line. I fear we, who look more like bandits than the best soldiers in the world, denigrate the memory of the Black Company.
Two more. Murgen, whom One-Eye sometimes calls Pup, was twenty-eight. The youngest. He joined the Company after our defection from the empire. He was a quiet man of many sorrows, unspoken, with no one and nothing but the Company to call his own, yet an outside and lonely man even here.
As are we all. As are we all.
Lastly, there was Lady, who used to be the Lady. Lost Lady, beautiful Lady, my fantasy, my terror, more silent than Murgen, but from a different cause: despair. Once she had it all. She gave it up. Now she has nothing.
Nothing she knows to be of value.
That dust on the Lords road was gone, scattered by a chilly breeze. Some of my beloved had departed my life forever.
No sense staying around. "Cinch them up," I said, and set an example. I tested the ties on the pack animals. "Mount up. One-Eye, you take the point."
Finally, a hint of spirit as Goblin carped, "I have to eat his dust?" If One-Eye had point that meant Goblin had rearguard. As wizards they were no mountain movers, but they were useful. One fore and one aft left me feeling far more comfortable.
"About his turn, don't you think?"
"Things like that don't deserve a turn," Goblin said. He tried to giggle but only managed a smile that was a ghost of his usual toadlike grin.
One-Eye's answering glower was not much pumpkin, either. He rode out without comment.
Murgen followed fifty yards behind, a twelve-foot lance rigidly upright. Once that lance had flaunted our standard. Now it trailed four feet of tattered black cloth. The symbolism lay on several levels.
We knew who we were. It was best that others did not. The Company had too many enemies.
Hagop and Otto followed Murgen, leading pack animals. Then came Lady and I, also with tethers behind. Goblin trailed us by seventy yards. And thus we always traveled for we were at war with the world. Or maybe it was the other way around.
I might have wished for outriders and scouts, but there was a limit to what seven could accomplish. Two wizards were the next best thing.
We bristled with weaponry. I hoped we looked as easy as a hedgehog does to a fox.
The eastbound road dropped out of sight. I was the only one to look back in hopes Silent had found a vacancy in his heart. But that was a vain fantasy. And I knew it.
In emotional terms we had parted ways with Silent and Darling months ago, on the blood-sodden, hate-drenched battleground of the Barrowland.
A world was saved there, and so much else lost. We will live out our lives wondering about the cost.
Different hearts, different roads.
"Looks like rain, Croaker," Lady said.
Her remark startled me. Not that what she said was not true. It did look like rain. But it was the first observation she had volunteered since that dire day in the north.
Maybe she was going to come around.CHAPTER 2
THE ROAD SOUTH
"The farther we come, the more it looks like spring," One-Eye observed. He was in a good mood.
I caught the occasional glint of mischief brewing in Goblin's eyes too, lately. Before long those two would find some excuse to revive their ancient feud. The magical sparks would fly. If nothing else, the rest of us would be entertained.
Even Lady's mood improved, though she spoke little more than before.
"Break's over," I said. "Otto, kill the fire. Goblin. Your point." I stared down the road. Another two weeks and we would be near Charm. I had not yet revealed what we had to do there.
I noticed buzzards circling. Something dead ahead, near the road.
I do not like omens. They make me uncomfortable. Those birds made me uncomfortable.
I gestured. Goblin nodded. "I'll go now," he said. "Stretch it out a bit."
Murgen gave him an extra fifty yards. Otto and Hagop gave Murgen additional room. But One-Eye kept pressing up behind Lady and I, rising in his stirrups, trying to keep an eye on Goblin. "Got a bad feeling about that, Croaker," he said. "A bad feeling."
Though Goblin raised no alarm, One-Eye was right. Those doombirds did mark a bad thing.
A fancy coach lay overturned beside the road. Two of its team of four had been killed in the traces, probably because of injuries. Two animals were missing.
Around the coach lay the bodies of six uniformed guards and the driver, and that of one riding horse. Within the coach were a man, a woman, and two small children. All murdered.
"Hagop," I said, "see what you can read from the signs. Lady. Do you know these people? Do you recognize their crest?" I indicated fancywork on the coach door.
"The Falcon of Rail. Proconsul of the empire. But he isn't one of those. He's older, and fat. They might be family."
Hagop told us, "They were headed north. The brigands overtook them." He held up a scrap of dirty cloth. "They didn't get off easy themselves." When I did not respond he drew my attention to the scrap.
"Grey boys," I mused. Grey boys were imperial troops of the northern armies. "Bit out of their territory."
"Deserters," Lady said. "The dissolution has begun."
"Likely." I frowned. I had hoped decay would hold off till we got a running start.
Lady mused, "Three months ago travelling the empire was safe for a virgin alone."
She exaggerated. But not much. Before the struggle in the Barrowland consumed them, great powers called the Taken watched over the provinces and requited unlicensed wickedness swiftly and ferociously. Still, in any land or time, there are those brave or fool enough to test the limits, and others eager to follow their example. That process was accelerating in an empire bereft of its cementing horrors.
I hoped their passing had not yet become a general suspicion. My plans depended on the assumption of old guises.
"Shall we start digging?" Otto asked.
"In a minute," I said. "How long ago did it happen, Hagop?"
"Couple of hours."
"And nobody's been along?"
"Oh, yeah. But they just went around."
"Must be a nice bunch of bandits," One-Eye mused. "If they can get away with leaving bodies laying around."
"Maybe they're supposed to be seen," I said. "Could be they're trying to carve out their own barony."
"Likely," Lady said. "Ride carefully, Croaker."
I raised an eyebrow.
"I don't want to lose you."
One-Eye cackled. I reddened. But it was good to see some life in her.
* * *
We buried the bodies but left the coach. Civilized obligation fulfilled, we resumed our journey.
Two hours later Goblin came riding back. Murgen stationed himself where he could be seen on a curve. We were in a forest now, but the road was in good repair, with the woods cleared back from its sides. It was a road upgraded for military traffic.
Goblin said, "There's an inn up ahead. I don't like its feel."
Night would be along soon. We had spent the afternoon planting the dead. "It look alive?" The countryside had gotten strange after the burying. We met no one on the road. The farms near the woods were abandoned.
"Teeming. Twenty people in the inn. Five more in the stables. Thirty horses. Another twenty people out in the woods. Forty more horses penned there. A lot of other livestock, too."
The implications seemed obvious enough. Pass by, or meet trouble head-on?
The debate was brisk. Otto and Hagop said straight in. We had One-Eye and Goblin if it got hairy.
One-Eye and Goblin did not like being put on the spot.
I demanded an advisory vote. Murgen and Lady abstained. Otto and Hagop were for stopping. One-Eye and Goblin eyeballed one another, each waiting for the other to jump so he could come down on the opposite side.
"We go straight at it, then," I said. "These clowns are going to split but still make a majority for ..." Whereupon the wizards ganged up and voted to jump in just to make a liar out of me.
Three minutes later I caught my first glimpse of the ramshackle inn. A hardcase stood in the doorway, studying Goblin. Another sat in a rickety chair, tilted against the wall, chewing a stick or piece of straw. The man in the doorway withdrew.
* * *
Grey boys Hagop had called the bandits whose handiwork we encountered on the road. But grey was the color of uniforms in the territories whence we came. In Forsberger, the most common language in the northern forces, I asked the man in the chair, "Place open for business?"
"Yeah." Chair-sitter's eyes narrowed. He wondered.
"One-Eye. Otto. Hagop. See to the animals." Softly, I asked, "You catching anything, Goblin?"
"Somebody just went out the back. They're on their feet inside. But it don't look like trouble right away."
Chair-sitter did not like us whispering. "How long you reckon on staying?" he asked. I noted a tattoo on one wrist, another giveaway betraying him as an immigrant from the north.
"We're crowded, but we'll fit you in somehow." He was a cool one.
Trapdoor spiders, these deserters. The inn was their base, the place where they marked out their victims. But they did their dirt on the road.
Silence reigned inside the inn. We examined the men there as we entered, and a few women who looked badly used. They did not ring true. Wayside inns usually are family-run establishments, infested with kids and old folks and all the oddities in between. None of those were evident. Just hard men and bad women.
There was a large table available near the kitchen door. I seated myself with my back to a wall. Lady plopped down beside me. I sensed her anger. She was not accustomed to being looked at the way these men were looking at her.
She remained beautiful despite road dirt and rags.
I rested a hand upon one of hers, a gesture of restraint rather than of possession.
A plump girl of sixteen with haunted bovine eyes came to ask how many we were, our needs in food and quarters, whether bath water should be heated, how long we meant to tarry, what was the color of our coin. She did it listlessly but right, as though beyond hope, filled only with dread of the cost of doing it wrong.
I intuited her as belonging to the family who rightfully operated the inn.
I tossed her a gold piece. We had plenty, having looted certain imperial treasures before departing the Barrow-land. The flicker of the spinning coin sparked a sudden glitter in the eyes of men pretending not to be watching.
One-Eye and the others clumped in, dragged up chairs. The little black man whispered, "There's a big stir out in the woods. They have plans for us." A froggish grin yanked at the left corner of his mouth. I gathered he might have plans of his own. He likes to let the bad guys ambush themselves.
"There's plans and plans," I said. "If they are bandits, we'll let them hang themselves."
He wanted to know what I meant. My schemes sometimes got more nasty than his. That is because I lose my sense of humor and just go for maximum dirt.
* * *
We rose before dawn. One-Eye and Goblin used a favorite spell to put everyone in the inn into a deep sleep. Then they slipped out to repeat their performance in the woods. The rest of us readied our animals and gear. I had a small skirmish with Lady. She wanted me to do something for the women kept captive by the brigands.
"If I try to right every wrong I run into, I'll never get to Khatovar."
She did not respond. We rode out minutes later.
* * *
One-Eye said we were near the end of the forest. "This looks as good a place as any," I said. Murgen, Lady, and I turned into the woods west of the road. Hagop, Otto, and Goblin turned east. One-Eye just turned around and waited.
He was doing nothing apparent. Goblin was busy, too.
"What if they don't come?" Murgen asked.
"Then we guessed wrong. They're not bandits. I'll send them an apology on the wind."
Nothing got said for a while. When next I moved forward to check the road One-Eye was no longer alone. A half-dozen horsemen backed him. My heart twisted. His phantoms were all men I had known, old comrades, long dead.
I retreated, more shaken than I had expected. My emotional state did not improve. Sunlight dropped through the forest canopy to dapple the doubles of more dead friends. They waited with shields and weapons ready, silently, as befit ghosts.
They were not ghosts, really, except in my mind. They were illusions crafted by One-Eye. Across the road Goblin was raising his own shadow legion.
Given time to work, those two were quite the artists.
There was no doubt, now, even who Lady was.
"Hoofbeats," I said, needlessly. "They're coming."
My stomach turned over. Had I bet to an inside straight? Taken too long a shot? If they chose to fight ... If Goblin or One-Eye faltered ...
"Too late for debate, Croaker."
Excerpted from Shadow Games by Glen Cook. Copyright © 1989 Glen Cook. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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