The Rise of the Black Company
Annals of Croaker Part 1
Annals of Croaker Part 1
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 the first taste. “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 founding 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 Mumbles and me lag along. I could patch the wounded, so could Mumbles. Mumbles would be useful if the Blues played rough. Mumbles 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 mumbled something incoherently. Mumbles is a master linguist, but no one can understand a damn word he says unless he takes the time.
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. “Mumbles!”
Mumbles was on the job already, and he is solid, effective and stable, despite the appearance of multiple personalities. That meant lots of sound, but 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.
Mumbles mumbled, big talker that guy. 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, Mumbles,” Mercy said, after having vented his fury on several hapless patrons. He herded the survivors into the street.
Mumbles and I examined our injured brothers while the unharmed soldier finished the wounded. Saving the Syndic the cost of a trial and a hangman, Mercy called that. Mumbles looked on, still mumbling. 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, Mumbles.” 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 time-deep 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 Mumbles.
Mumbles 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, short-term 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 Bastard and the rest of Mercy’s squad, tough bastards all of them.
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 carpeted 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.