The Rise of the Black Company
Annals of Croaker Part 3
Chapter Two: RAVEN
“The crossing from Beryl proves my point,” One-Eye growled over a pewter tankard. “The Black Company doesn’t belong on water. Wench! More ale!” He waved his tankard. The girl could not understand him otherwise. He refused to learn the languages of the north.
“You’re drunk,” I observed.
“How perceptive. Will you take note, gentlemen? The Croaker, our esteemed master of the arts cleric and medical, has had the perspicacity to discover that I am drunk.” He punctuated his speech with belches and mispronunciations. He surveyed his audience with that look of sublime solemnity only a drunk can muster. The girl brought another pitcher, and a bottle for Silent. He, too, was ready for more of his particular poison. He was drinking a sour Beryl wine perfectly suited to his personality. Money changed hands.
There were seven of us old schoolers, plus Bastard and his regulars. We were keeping our heads down. The place was full of sailors. We were outsiders, outlanders, the sort picked for pounding when the brawling started. With the exception of One-Eye, we prefer saving our fight for when we are getting paid.
Pawnbroker stuck his ugly face in through the street doorway. His beady little eyes tightened into a squint. He spotted us.
Pawnbroker. He got that name because he loansharks the Company. He doesn’t like it, but says anything is better than the moniker hung on him by his peasant parents: Sugar Beet.
“Hey! It’s the Sweet Beet!” One-Eye roared. “Come on over, Sugar Baby. Drinks on One-Eye. He’s too drunk to know any better.” He was. Sober, One-Eye is tighter than a collar of day-old rawhide.
Pawnbroker winced, looked around furtively. He has that manner. “The Captain wants you guys.”
We exchanged glances. One-Eye settled down. We had not seen much of the Captain lately. He was all the time hanging around with bigwigs from the Imperial Army. Elmo and the Lieutenant got up. I did too, and started toward Pawnbroker. The barkeeper bellowed. A serving wench darted to the doorway, blocked it. A huge, dull bull of a man lumbered out of a back room. He carried a prodigious gnarly club in each hogshead hand. He looked confused.
One-Eye snarled. The rest of our crowd rose, ready for anything. The sailors, smelling a riot, started choosing sides. Mostly against us.
“What the hell is going on?” I shouted.
“Please, sir,” said the girl at the door. “Your friends haven’t paid for their last round.” She sped the barkeeper a vicious look.
“The hell they didn’t.” House policy was payment on delivery. I looked at the Lieutenant. He agreed. I glanced at the barkeep, sensed his greed. He thought we were drunk enough to pay twice.
Elmo said, “One-Eye, you picked this thieves’ den. You straighten them out.” No sooner said than done. One-Eye squealed like a hog meeting the butcher. . . .
A chimp-sized, four-armed bundle of ugly exploded from beneath our table. It charged the girl at the door, left fang-marks on her thigh. Then it climbed all over the club-wielding mountain of muscle. The man was bleeding in a dozen places before he knew what was happening.
A fruit bowl on a table at the room’s center vanished in a black fog. It reappeared a second later-with venomous snakes boiling over its rim. The barkeep’s jaw dropped. And scarab beetles poured out of his mouth.
We made our exit during the excitement. One-Eye howled and giggled for blocks.
The Captain stared at us. We leaned on one another before his table. One-Eye still suffered the occasional spate of giggles. Even the Lieutenant could not keep a straight face. “They’re drunk,” the Captain told him.
“We’re drunk,” One-Eye agreed. “We’re palpably, plausibly, pukingly drunk.” The Lieutenant jabbed him in the kidney.
“Sit down, men. Try to behave while you’re here.”
Here was a posh garden establishment socially miles above our last port of call. Here even the whores had titles. Plantings and tricks of landscaping broke the gardens into areas of semi-seclusion. There were ponds, gazebos, stone walkways, and an overwhelming perfume of flowers in the air.
“A little rich for us,” I remarked.
“What’s the occasion?” the Lieutenant asked. The rest of us jockeyed for seats. The Captain had staked out a huge stone table. Twenty people could have sat around it. “We’re guests. Act like it.” He toyed with the badge over his heart, identifying him as receiving the protection of Soulcatcher. We each possessed one but seldom wore them. The Captain’s gesture suggested we correct that deficiency.
“We’re guests of the Taken?” I asked. I fought the effects of the ale. This should go into the Annals.
“No. The badges are for the benefit of the house.” He gestured. Everyone visible wore a badge declaring an alignment with one or another of the Taken. I recognized a few. The Howler. Nightcrawler. Stormbringer. The Limper.
“Our host wants to enlist in the Company.”
“He wants to join the Black Company?” One-Eye asked. “What’s wrong with the fool?” It had been years since we had taken a new recruit.
The Captain shrugged, smiled. “Once upon a time a witchdoctor did.”
One-Eye grumbled, “He’s been sorry ever since.”
“Why is he still here?” I asked.
One-Eye did not answer. Nobody leaves the Company, except feet first. The outfit is home.
“What’s he like?” the Lieutenant asked.
The Captain closed his eyes. “Unusual. He could be an asset. I like him. But judge for yourselves. He’s here.” He flicked a finger at a man surveying the gardens.
His clothing was grey, tattered, and patched. He was of modest height, lean, dusky. Darkly handsome. I guessed him to be in his late twenties. Unprepossessing. . . .
Not really. On second glance you noted something striking. An intensity, a lack of expression, something in his stance. He was not intimidated by the gardens. People looked and wrinkled their noses. They did not see the man, they saw rags. You could feel their revulsion. Bad enough that we had been allowed inside. Now it was ragpickers.
A grandly accoutered attendant went to show him an entrance he’d obviously entered in error.
The man came toward us, passing the attendant as if he did not exist. There was a jerkiness, a stiffness, to his movements which suggested he was recovering from recent wounds. “Captain?”
“Good afternoon. Have a seat.”
A ponderous staff general detached himself from a clutch of senior officers and svelte young women. He took a few steps our way, paused/He was tempted to make his prejudices known.
I recognized him. Lord Jalena. As high as you could get without being one of the Ten Who Were Taken. His face was puffed and red. If the Captain noticed him, he pretended otherwise.
“Gentlemen, this is … Raven. He wants to join us. Raven isn’t his birthname. Doesn’t matter. The rest of you lied too. Introduce yourselves and ask questions.”
There was something odd about this Raven. We were his guests, apparently. His manner was not that of a street beggar, yet he looked like a lot of bad road. Lord Jalena arrived. His breath came in wheezes. Pigs like him I would love to put through half what they inflict on their troops.
He scowled at the Captain. “Sir,” he said between puffs, “Your connections are such that we can’t deny you, but. . . . The Gardens are for persons of refinement. They have been for two hundred years. We don’t admit. . . .” The Captain donned a quizzical smile. Mildly, he replied, “I’m a guest, Milord. If you don’t like my company, complain to my host.” He indicated Raven. Jalena made a half-right turn. “Sir. . . .” His eyes and mouth went round.
Raven stared at Jalena. Not one muscle twitched. Not an eyelash flickered. The color fled the fat man’s cheeks. He glanced at his own party almost in supplication, looked at Raven again, turned to the Captain. His mouth worked but no words came out.
The Captain reached toward Raven. Raven accepted Soulcatcher’s badge. He pinned it over his heart.
Jalena went paler still. He backed away.
“Seems to know you,” the Captain observed.
“He thought I was dead.”
Jalena rejoined his party. He gabbled and pointed. Pale-faced men looked our way. They argued briefly, then the whole lot fled the garden.
Raven did not explain. Instead, he said, “Shall we get to business?” “Care to illuminate what just happened?” The Captain’s voice had a dangerous softness.
“Better reconsider. Your presence could endanger the whole Company.”
“It won’t. It’s a personal matter. I won’t bring it with me.”
The Captain thought about it. He is not one to intrude on a man’s past. Not without cause. He decided he had cause. “How can you avoid bringing it? Obviously, you mean something to Lord Jalena.”
“Not to Jalena. To friends of his. It’s old history. I’ll settle it before I join you. Five people have to die to close the book.”
This sounded interesting. Ah, the smell of mystery and dark doings, of skullduggery and revenge. The meat of a good tale. “I’m Croaker. Any special reason for not sharing the story?”
Raven faced me, obviously under rigid self-control. “It’s private, it’s old, and it’s shameful. I don’t want to talk about it.”
One-Eye said, “In that case I can’t vote for acceptance.”
Two men and a woman came down a flagstone pathway, paused overlooking the place where Lord Jalena’s party had been. Latecomers? They were surprised. I watched them talk it over.
Elmo voted with One-Eye. So did the Lieutenant.
“Croaker?” the Captain asked.
I voted aye. I smelled a mystery and did not want it to get away.
The Captain told Raven, “I know part of it. That’s why I’m voting with One-Eye. For the Company’s sake. I’d like to have you. But. . . . Settle it before we leave.”
The latecomers headed our way, noses in the air but determined to learn what had become of their party.
“When are you leaving?” Raven asked. “How long do I have?”
“What?” I demanded.
“Hold on,” One-Eye said. “How come already?”
Even the Lieutenant, who never questions anything, said, “We were supposed to get a couple weeks.” He had found a lady friend, his first since I had known him.
The Captain shrugged. “They need us up north. The Limper lost the fortress at Deal to a Rebel named Raker.”
The latecomers arrived. One of the men demanded, “What became of the party in the Camellia Grotto?” His voice had a whiny, nasal quality. My hackles rose. It reeked of arrogance and contempt. I hadn’t heard its like since I joined the Black Company. People in Beryl hadn’t used that tone.
They don’t know the Black Company in Opal, I told myself. Not yet, they don’t. The voice hit Raven like a sledge whack on the back of the head. He stiffened. For a moment his eyes were pure ice. Then a smite crinkled their corners-as evil a smite as I have ever seen.
The Captain whispered, “I know why Jalena suffered his attack of indigestion.” We sat motionless, frozen by deadly imminence. Raven turned slowly, rising. Those three saw his face.
Whiny-voice choked. His male companion began shaking. The woman opened her mouth. Nothing came out.
Where Raven got the knife I do not know. It went almost too fast to follow. Whiny-voice bled from a cut throat. His friend had steel in his heart. And Raven had the woman’s throat in his left hand.
“No. Please,” she whispered without force. She expected no mercy. Raven squeezed, forced her to her knees. Her face purpled, bloated. Her tongue rolled out. She seized his wrist, shuddered. He lifted her, stared into her eyes till they rolled up and she sagged. She shuddered again, died.
Raven jerked his hand away. He stared at that rigid, shaking claw. His face was ghastly. He surrendered to the all-over shakes.
“Croaker!” the Captain snapped. “Don’t you claim to be a physician?”
“Yeah.” People were reacting. The whole garden was watching. I checked Whiny-voice. Dead as a stone. So was his sidekick. I turned to the woman. Raven knelt. He held her left hand. There were tears in his eyes. He removed a gold wedding band, pocketed it. That was all he took, though she sported a fortune in jewelry.
I met his gaze over the body. The ice was in his eyes again. It dared me to voice my guess.
“I don’t want to sound hysterical,” One-Eye growled, “but why don’t we get the hell out of here?”
“Good thinking,” Elmo said, and started heeling and toeing it.
“Get moving!” the Captain snapped at me. He took Raven’s arm. I trailed. Raven said, “I’ll have my affairs settled by dawn.”
The Captain glanced back. “Yeah,” was all he said.
I thought so too. But we would leave Opal without him.
The Captain received several nasty messages that night. His only comment was, “Those three must have been part of the in-crowd.”
“They wore the Limper’s badges,” I said. “What’s the story on Raven, anyway? Who is he?”
“Somebody who didn’t get along with the Limper. Who was done dirty and left for dead.”
“Was the woman something he didn’t tell you?”
The Captain shrugged. I took that as an affirmative.
“Bet she was his wife. Maybe she betrayed him.” That kind of thing is common here. Conspiracies and assassinations and naked power-grabs. All the fun of decadence. The Lady does not discourage anything. Maybe the games amuse her. As we traveled north we moved ever nearer the heart of the empire. Each day took us into emotionally bleaker country. The locals became ever more dour, grim, and sullen. These were not happy lands, despite the season.
Lieutenant was sent out to issue Oaths of Movement. A lot of men would be hungover. I talked things over with the Captain back at headquarters. Bastard was on his way in when I was on my way out. Captain had told me the news. Bastard was gonna be REAL pleased. Couldn’t think of a better man for the job though.