The Rise of the Black Company
The Annals of Croaker Part 6
The city Oar lies in northernmost Forsberg, and in the forests above lies the Barrowland, where the Lady and her lover, the Dominator, were interred four centuries ago. The stubborn necromantic investigations of wizards from Oar had resurrected the Lady and Ten Who Were Taken from their dark, abiding* dreams. Now their guilt-ridden descendants battled the Lady. Southern Forsberg remained deceptively peaceful. The peasantry greeted us without enthusiasm, but willingly took our money, “That’s because seeing the Lady’s soldiers pay is such a novelty,” Raven claimed. “The Taken just grab whatever strikes their fancy.” The Captain grunted. We would have done so ourselves had we not had instructions to the contrary. Soulcatcher had directed us to be gentlemen. He had given the Captain a plump war chest. The Captain was willing. No point making enemies needlessly. We had been travelling two months. A thousand miles lay behind us. We were exhausted. The Captain decided to rest us at the edge of the war zone. Maybe he was having second thoughts about serving the Lady. Anyway, there is no point hunting trouble. Not when not fighting pays the same. The Captain directed us into a forest. While we pitched camp, he talked with Raven. I watched. Curious. There was a bond developing there. I could not understand it because I did not know enough about either man. Raven was a new enigma, the Captain an old one. In all the years I have known the Captain I have learned almost nothing about him. Just a hint here and there, fleshed out by speculation. He was born in one of the Jewel Cities. He was a professional soldier. Something overturned his personal life. Possibly a woman. He abandoned commission and titles and became a wanderer. Eventually he hooked up with our band of spiritual exiles. We all have our pasts. I suspect we keep them nebulous not because we are hiding from our yesterdays but because we think we will cut more romantic figures if we roll our eyes and dispense delicate hints about beautiful women forever beyond our reaches. Those men whose stories I have uprooted are running from the law, not a tragic love affair. The Captain and Raven, though, obviously found one another kindred souls. The camp was set. The pickets were out. We settled in to rest. Though that was busy country, neither contending force noticed us immediately. Silent was using his skills to augment the watchfulness of our sentries. He detected spies hidden inside our outer picket line and warned One-Eye. One-Eye reported to the Captain. The Captain spread a map atop a stump we had turned into a card table, after evicting me, One-Eye, Goblin, and several others. “Where are they?” “Two here. Two more over there. One here.” “Somebody go tell the pickets to disappear. We’ll sneak out, Goblin. Where’s Goblin? Tell Goblin to get with the illusions.” The Captain had decided not to start anything. A laudable decision, I thought. A few minutes later, he asked, “Where’s Raven?” I said, “I think he went after the spies.” “What? Is he an idiot?” His face darkened. “What the hell do you want?” Goblin squeaked like a stomped rat. He squeaks at the best of times. The Captain’s outburst had him sounding like a baby bird. “You called for me.” The Captain stamped in a circle, growling and scowling. Had he the talent of a Goblin or a One-Eye, smoke would have poured from his ears. I winked at Goblin, who grinned like a big toad. This shambling little war dance was just a warning not to trifle with him. He shuffled maps. He cast dark looks. He wheeled on me. “I don’t like it. Did you put him up to it?” “Hell no.” I do not try to create Company history. I just record it. Then Raven showed up. He dumped a body at the Captain’s feet, proffered a string of grisly trophies. “What the hell?” “Thumbs. They count coup in these parts.” The Captain turned green around the gills. “What’s the body for?” “Stick his feet in the fire. Leave him. They won’t waste time wondering how we knew they were out there.” One-Eye, Goblin, and Silent cast a glamour over the Company. We slipped away, slick as a fish through the fingers of a clumsy fisherman. An enemy battalion, which had been sneaking up, never caught a whiff of us. We headed straight north. The Captain planned to find the Limper. Late that afternoon One-Eye broke into a marching song. Goblin squawked in protest. One-Eye grinned and sang all the louder. “He’s changing the words!” Goblin squealed. Men grinned, anticipating. One-Eye and Goblin have been feuding for ages. One-Eye always starts the scraps. Goblin can be as touchy as a fresh burn. Their spats are entertaining. This time Goblin did not reciprocate. He ignored One-Eye. The little black man got his feelings hurt. He got louder. We expected fireworks. What we got is bored. One-Eye could not get a rise. He started sulking. A bit later, Goblin told me, “Keep your eyes peeled, Croaker. We’re in strange country. Anything could happen.” He giggled. A horsefly landed on the haunch of One-Eye’s mount. The animal screamed, reared. Sleepy One-Eye tumbled over its tail. Everybody guffawed. The wizened little wizard came up out of the dust cursing and swatting with his battered old hat. He punched his horse with his free hand, connecting with the beast’s forehead. Then he danced around moaning and blowing on his knuckles. His reward was a shower of catcalls. Goblin smirked. Soon One-Eye was dozing again. It’s a trick you learn after enough weary miles on horseback. A bird settled on his shoulder. He snorted, swatted. . . . The bird left a huge, fetid purple deposit. One-Eye howled. He threw things. He shredded his jerkin getting it off. Again we laughed. And Goblin looked as innocent as a virgin. One-Eye scowled and growled but did not catch on. He got a glimmer when we crested a hill and beheld a band of monkey-sized pygmies busily kissing an idol reminiscent of a horse’s behind. Every pygmy was a miniature One-Eye. The little wizard turned a hideous look on Goblin. Goblin responded with an innocent, don’t look at me shrug. “Point to Goblin,” I judged. “Better watch yourself, Croaker,” One-Eye growled. “Or you’ll be doing the kissing right here.” He patted his fanny. “When pigs fly.” He is a more skilled wizard than Goblin or Silent, but not half what he would have us believe. If he could execute half his threats, he would be a peril to the Taken. Silent is more consistent, Goblin more inventive. One-Eye would lie awake nights thinking of ways to get even for Goblin’s having gotten even. A strange pair. I do not know why they have not killed one another.