The Rise of the Black Company
Annals of Croaker Part 4
Bastard was gone longer than expected. Two days after the scheduled rendezvous point we dropped Scratch and Fitz with a squad to wait for Bastard to show up. I wasn’t real optimistic but Bastard surprised us all. He even showed up with a veteran soldier who wanted to sign up. I was skeptic, word was that he was Soulcatcher’s creature, but the Captain wanted to toss the dice. His name was Hatchet and he had a lot to offer. He joined Bastards platoon. I saw an immediate improvement in military discipline. The Captain gloated. Kind of. He’s rather stoic most of the time but when he see’s Hatchet drilling the men I can see the pride in his eyes.
Bastard and Mumbles’ debrief read like something out of a fair tale. I scoffed several times during their debriefing but Captain seemed to take everything in stride. Goblin and One-Eye seemed to corroborate the story with what snippets of information Soulcatcher had given them. It seems that they showed up and tried to do their mission but were attacked by creatures and ghouls under the Limper’s command. At least it seemed that way. There was evidence to support that there were more than one Taken involved. It was a wonder that Bastard and his crew escaped with no casualties, let alone accomplish their mission.
The day came when we had to skirt the very soul of the empire, the Tower at Charm, built by the Lady after her resurrection. Hard-eyed cavalrymen escorted us. We got no closer than three miles. Even so, the Tower’s silhouette loomed over the horizon. It is a massive cube of dark stone. It stands at least five hundred feet high.
I studied it all day. What was our mistress like? Would I ever meet her? She intrigued me. That night I wrote an exercise in which I tried to characterize her. It degenerated into a romantic fantasy.
Next afternoon we encountered a pale-faced rider galloping south in search of our Company. His badges proclaimed him a follower of the Limper. Our outriders brought him to the Lieutenant.
“You people are taking your damned sweet time, aren’t you? You’re wanted in Forsberg. Quit shitting around,”
The Lieutenant is a quiet man accustomed to the respect due his rank. He was so startled he said nothing. The courier became more offensive.
Then the Lieutenant demanded, “What’s your rank?”
“Corporal Courier to the Limper. Buddy, you’d better get hauling. He don’t put up with no shit.”
The Lieutenant is the Company disciplinarian. It is a load he takes off the Captain. He is a reasonable, just sort of guy.
“Sergeant!” he snapped at Bastard.
“I want you.” He was angry. Usually only the Captain calls Bastard Sergeant.
Elmo and Bastard were riding with the Captain at the time.
Elmo grinned at Bastard, “Hehe, that’s you newbie.”
Bastard trotted up the column. The Captain tagged along.
“Sir?” Bastard asked.
The Lieutenant halted the Company. “Flog some respect into this peasant.”
“Yes sir. Otto. Crispin. Turn a hand here.”
“Twenty strokes should do it.”
“Twenty strokes it is, sir.”
“What the hell do you think you’re pulling? No stinking hiresword is going to. . . .”
The Captain said, “Lieutenant, I think that calls for another ten lashes.”
“Yes sir. Bastard?”
“Thirty it is, sir.” He struck out. The courier flopped out of his saddle. Otto and Crispin picked him up and ran him to a rail fence, draped him over it. Crispin slit the back of his shirt.
Bastard plied the strokes with the Lieutenant’s riding crop. He did not lean into it. There was no rancor in this, just a message to those who thought the Black Company second-class.
I was there with my kit when he finished. “Try to relax, lad. I’m a physician. I’ll clean your back and bandage you.” I patted his cheek. “You took it pretty good for a northerner.”
Elmo gave him a new shirt when I finished. I offered some unsolicited advice on treatment, then suggested, “Report to the Captain as if this hadn’t happened.” I pointed toward the Captain. . .
Friend Raven had rejoined us. He watched from the back of a sweaty, dusty roan. The messenger took my advice. The Captain said, “Tell the Limper I’m traveling as fast as I can. I won’t push so hard I’ll be in no shape to fight when I get there.”
“Yes sir. I’ll tell him, sir.” Gingerly, the courier mounted his horse. He concealed his feelings well, Raven observed, “The Limper will cut your heart out for that.”
“The Limper’s displeasure doesn’t concern me. I thought you were going to join us before we left Opal.”
“I was slow closing accounts. One wasn’t in the city at all. Lord Jalena warned the other. It took me three days to find him.”
“The one out of town?”
“I decided to join you instead.”
That was not a satisfactory answer, but the Captain slid around it. “I can’t let you join us while you have outside interests.”
“I let it go. I repaid the most important debt.” He meant the woman. I could taste it.
The Captain eyed him sourly. “All right. Ride with Elmo’s platoon.”
“Thank you. Sir.” That sounded strange. He was not a man accustomed to sirring anyone.