She Is The Darkness
Tracy Zellich, who soldiered on. Your place in the Annals is assured.
The wind whines and howls with bitter breath. Lightning snarls and barks. Rage is an animate force upon the plain of glittering stone. Even shadows are afraid.
The scars of cataclysm disfigure a plain that has known only an age of dark perfection. A jagged fissure lies like a lightning slash across its face. Nowhere is that fissure so wide that a child could not step across but it seems bottomless. Trailers of mist drift forth. Some bear a hint of color. Any color clashes with the thousand blacks and greys.
At the heart of the plain stands a vast grey stronghold, unknown, older than any written memory. One ancient tower has collapsed across the fissure. From the heart of the fastness comes a great deep slow beat like that of a slumbering world-heart, cracking the olden silence.
Death is eternity. Eternity is stone. Stone is silence.
Stone cannot speak but stone remembers.
The Old Man looked up. His quill twitched, betraying his irritation at being interrupted. “What is it, Murgen?”
“I went for a walk with the ghost. That earth tremor we felt a while ago?”
“What about it? And don’t give me none of that around-the-bush crap One-Eye’s always handing out. I don’t have time for it.”
“The farther south you go the worse the destruction is.”
The Old Man opened his mouth, closed it to think some before he said anything else.
Croaker, the Old Man, the Captain of the Black Company, the right-now-by-god military dictator of Taglios and all its tributaries, dependencies and protectorates, does not look the part. He is in his middle fifties, possibly closer to sixty. He stands more than six feet tall. He has grown slightly heavy during four years spent mainly in garrison. He has a high forehead with a feeble crop of hair farther back. Lately he has been affecting a beard on his chin. It is grizzled. So is what hair still lurks upon his head. His icy blue eyes are deeply set, giving him a hard, scary look, like some kind of psychopathic killer.
He does not know. Nobody ever told him. Sometimes he is hurt because people back off. He does not understand why.
Mostly it’s his eyes. They can be really spooky.
He considers himself just one of the guys. Most of the time.
If he understood it he would use his impact to its limit. His belief in the value of creating illusions in the minds of others borders on religious conviction.
He stood up. “Let’s go for a walk, Murgen.”
In the Palace it is always best to be moving if you want to keep your conversations your own. The Palace is vast, a honeycomb networked with a labyrinth masking countless secret passageways. I have been mapping those but could not winkle them all out in a lifetime even if we were not heading south any day.
The point is, there is always a chance our friends will be listening to anything we say.
We have been very successful at driving our enemies out beyond arm’s reach.
Thai Dei picked us up at the doorway. The Old Man grimaced. He has no personal prejudice against my bodyguard and brother-in-law but he abhors the fact that so many Company brothers have acquired similar companions, none of whom are bound to his direct command. He does not trust the Nyueng Bao. He never has, never will and cannot explain clearly why.
He does understand that he was not there in hell’s forge when the bonds were hammered into existence. He will stipulate that. He has done his time in other hells. He was suffering one at that time.
I made a small gesture to Thai Dei. He dropped back a step, symbolically acknowledging our need for privacy rather than actually accepting it. He would hear everything we had to say anyway.
So every word we said would be spoken in the dialect of the Jewel City Beryl, which lies six thousand miles beyond the edge of any world Thai Dei can even imagine.
I wondered why Croaker bothered walking when he was going to use an alien tongue. No Taglian would understand a word. “Tell me,” he said.
“I walked with the ghost. I went south. I made the routine checks. I was just following the daily ritual.” I understood his desire to walk. Soulcatcher. Soulcatcher understood the Jewel Cities dialects. She would have more trouble eavesdropping if she had to find us first.
“Thought I told you to ease up. You’re spending too much time out there. It’ll hook you. It’s too easy to shake loose from the ache. That’s why I don’t go anymore.”
I masked my pain. “That’s not a problem, boss.” He would not believe me. He knew just how much Sarie meant to me, how much I missed her. How much I hurt. “I’m handling it. Anyway, what I want you to know is, the farther south you look the worse the damage done by that earthquake gets.”
“Am I supposed to be concerned? Dare I hope that you’ll tell me the Shadowmaster’s house fell in on his head?”
“You can hope all you want but you won’t hear it from me. Not now. His faults don’t include being a bad architect.”
“I had a feeling you wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. You’re no fun at all that way.”
Part of my job as Annalist is to remind my superiors that they are not gods. “It didn’t happen this time. Overlook came through almost unscathed. But Kiaulune was destroyed. Thousands were killed. The way disasters go, thousands more will die from hunger, disease and exposure.” The heart of winter was fast approaching.
Kiaulune is the southernmost city of men. Its name means Shadow Gate. When he came out of nowhere two decades ago and made himself master of the province, the Shadowmaster Longshadow changed the name to Shadowcatch. Only the peoples of the Shadowlands, who are inclined to avoid the Shadowmaster’s displeasure, actually employ names enforced upon them by their enslavement.
“Is that good news?”
“It’ll sure slow down construction work on Overlook. Longshadow won’t like it but he’s going to have to take time out to help his subjects. Otherwise he’ll run out of people to do his work for him.”
Our parade continued slowly through busy hallways. This part of the Palace had been given over to the war effort completely. Now people were packing. Soon we would be heading south, bound toward a major and possibly final collision with the armies of the Shadowmasters. Most of our forces were in transit already, a slow and difficult process. It takes ages to move large numbers a great distance.
The men in these offices had been laying the groundwork for years.
Croaker asked, “Are you saying we don’t need to get in any big hurry?”
“There’s no need now. The quake crippled him.”
“There wasn’t any pressing need before the quake. We could’ve gotten there before he finished his oversized sand castle.”
True. We were starting the campaign now mostly because the Captain and his woman were so thirsty for revenge.
Add the name Murgen to that list. My taste for vengeance was newer and bloodier. My wife was a more recent victim.
Longshadow and Narayan Singh would pay for Sarie’s death. Especially Narayan Singh.
You living saint of the Stranglers, your nightwalking companion now hunts you, too.
“Something that hurts him doesn’t really change anything at our end.”
I agreed. “True. Though it does give us more flexibility.”
“Yet it makes sense to jump them while they’re stunned. How widespread was the damage? Was it just Kiaulune?”
“There’s heavy damage everywhere south of the Dandha Presh. It gets worse as you go farther south. Those people won’t have much energy to spend trying to stop an invasion.”
“All the more reason to stay on schedule. We’ll stomp them while they’re down.”
The Old Man was bitter and vindictive. Comes with the job, I guess. And because of all the evils done to him.
“You ready to travel?” he asked.
“Personally? Me and my whole household have our preparations made. You name the day and we’ll be on the road.” My own bitterness leaked through.
I kept telling myself not to let the need for vengeance sink roots too deep. I dared not let it become an obsession.
Croaker pursed his lips, sour for a moment. My household includes not only Thai Dei but Sarie’s mother, Ky Gota, and Uncle Doj, who is not really anybody’s uncle but is a family attachment nonetheless. Croaker refuses to trust them. But he does not trust anybody who has not been a brother of the Company for years.
Proof was immediate. “Murgen, I want you to add the Radisha to the list of people you check regularly. I’m betting that as soon as we clear the city wall she’ll start fixing to break our hearts.”
I did not argue. It seemed likely.
All through our history the Black Company has suffered the ingratitude of our employers. Usually those blackguards received ample cause to regret their villainy. This time there was a good chance we could subvert the effort before the Radisha Drah and her brother, the Prahbrindrah Drah, could deal us any major treachery.
Right now the Radisha and Prince have to restrain themselves. As long as Longshadow survives, the Company will remain their lesser fear.
I asked, “You looked at those books yet?”
He could be exasperating. I snapped, “The books I risked my precious ass to steal back from Soulcatcher the other night. The lost Annals that are supposed to tell us why every damned fool lord and priest in this, end of the world is scared shitless of the Black Company.”
“Oh. Those books.”
“Yeah. Those...” I realized that he was ragging me.
“I haven’t had time, Murgen. Although I did find out that we’re going to need a translator. They aren’t written in modern Taglian.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“We’re taking the ghostwalker south with us.”
The sudden shift surprised me. Lately he has been so paranoid he will not mention Smoke, by name or otherwise, for any reason, even in a non-Taglian language.
There is always a crow around somewhere.
I replied. “I assumed we would. The resource is too valuable to leave here.”
“We don’t want anyone to know if we can help it.”
“The Radisha already wonders how come we find him so interesting that we’ll take care of him and keep him alive. She no longer thinks there’s any chance he’ll recover. If she puts much thought into it she might start adding things up.” He shrugged. “I’ll talk to One-Eye. You two can smuggle him out when nobody’s looking.”
“One more thing to do in my copious spare time.”
“Hey. Enjoy it while you can. Soon we’ll get to sleep for ages.”
He is not a religious man.
“I got to do everything,” One-Eye grumbled. “Anything that’s got to be done, just stick it on old One-Eye. He’ll take care of it.”
I sneered. “That’s only if you can’t find Murgen first.”
“I’m too old for this shit, Kid. I ought to be retired.”
The little black man had a point. According to the Annals he is about two hundred years old, still alive mostly because of his own clever sorcery. And good luck beyond what any human being deserves.
The two of us were inside a dark circular stairway, lugging a body down on a litter. Smoke did not weigh much but One-Eye made the job a pain in the ass anyway. “You about ready to trade off?” I asked. I had the uphill end. I am more than six feet tall. One-Eye goes five feet if you stand him on a thick book. But he is a stubborn little shit who can never admit that he is wrong.
For some reason One-Eye had it in his head that the downhill end of a litter would be the easy one to handle on a stairway.
“Yeah. I think. When we get down to the next landing.”
I grinned in the darkness. That would leave us with just one story to go. Then I grumbled, “I hope that damned Sleepy is on time.”
Though barely eighteen Sleepy is a four year veteran of the Company. He went through the fire of Dejagore with us. He still has a tendency to be late and a little irresponsible but, hell, he is still awful young.
Youth made him the best man to be driving a wagon around Taglios in the middle of the night if you did not want to attract attention. A Vehdna Taglian, he could pass as an apprentice easily. He could not be expected to know what he was doing. Apprentices do what they are told. Their masters seldom feel obliged to explain to them.
The kid would have no clue what he was up to tonight. If he arrived on time he would not guess his part for years. He was supposed to wander off before the wagon acquired its mysterious burden.
One-Eye would take over after we loaded Smoke. He would explain, if he found himself in a position where that became necessary, that the corpse back there was Goblin. No one would know the difference. Smoke had not been seen at all for four years and seldom publicly before that. And Goblin had not been around for a while because the Old Man sent him off on a mission weeks ago.
Anybody running into One-Eye would know who he was right away. He is the most recognizable member of the Company. His ugly old black hat gives him away even in the dark. It is so damned filthy it glows.
I exaggerate only slightly.
People would believe One-Eye because everyone in Taglios knows the nasty little runt runs with a toad-faced little white wizard called Goblin.
The trick would be to distract them from Smoke’s skin color. Or One-Eye could put a glamor on him and make him actually look enough like Goblin to deceive the Taglian eye.
Eventually somebody would discover that Smoke no longer was in the Palace. Probably later. By accident. When somebody stumbled through the network of confusion spells surrounding the room where Smoke had lain hidden for years.
“Somebody” would be the Radisha Drah. She and Uncle Doj are the only people besides me and Croaker and One-Eye who know Smoke is still alive, if unutterably lost in the land of coma.
He is more useful now than he ever was when he was conscious and the secret court wizard.
Smoke had been as thoroughly craven as it is possible for a human to be.
We reached the landing. One-Eye damned near dropped his end of the litter. He was in a hurry to take a break. “Let me know when you’re ready,” I told him.
“You don’t got to go smart-assing me, Kid.” He muttered a few words in a dead tongue, which was totally unnecessary and entirely for show. He could have said the same thing in Taglian and have achieved the same result. Which was that a globe of shimmering swamp gas materialized above his ugly hat.
“Did I say anything?”
“You don’t got to talk, Kid. You’re grinning like a shiteating dog.” But he was puffing too hard to keep it up. “Old fart’s heavier than he looks, isn’t he?”
He was. Maybe because he was all lard after four years asleep, getting his sustenance as soup and gravy and any other sludge I can spoon down him.
He is a mess to take care of. I would let him croak if he was not so damned useful.
The Company wastes no love on this man.
Maybe I like him better unconscious than conscious, though we never butted heads personally. I have heard so many horror stories about his cowardice that I cannot say much in his favor at all. Well, he was a modestly effective fire marshal when he was awake. Fire is an enemy Taglios knows far more intimately than any remote Shadowmaster.
If he had not been such a chickenshit and gone over to Longshadow he would not be in the sad shape he is now.
For reasons unclear even to One-Eye, Smoke’s comatose spirit is anchored to his flesh very loosely. Making a connection with his ka, which is what they might call it around here, is easy. It takes instructions well. I can connect with him, detach from my flesh and ride him almost anywhere, to see almost anything. Which is why he is so special to us today. Which is why it is so critical to keep everything about him under wraps.
If we succeed in this dark war, victory will come largely because we can “walk with the ghost.”
“I’m ready to go,” One-Eye said.
“You come back fast for an old fart.”
“You keep running your jaw, Kid, you’re never gonna get a chance to find out what it’s like to be old enough to deserve respect but not to get none from pups like you.”
“Don’t go picking on me because Goblin ran out on you.”
“Where the hell is that stunted mouse turd, anyway?”
I knew. Or thought I knew. I walk with the ghost. One-Eye did not need to know, though, so I did not clue him in. “Lift the damned litter, limberdick.”
“I just know you’re going to enjoy life as a polecat, Kid.”
We hoisted the litter. Smoke made a gurgling sound. Foamy spit dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “Hustle up. I need to get his mouth cleaned out before he drowns himself.”
One-Eye saved his breath. We clumped down the stairs. Smoke began making strangling noises. I kicked the door open and went through without looking outside first. We got into the street.
“Put him down,” I snapped. “Then cover us while I take care of him.” Who knew what might be watching? Taglian nights conceal countless curious eyes. Everyone wants to know what the Black Company is doing. We take it as a given that some of those are people we do not even know yet.
Paranoia is a way of life.
I knelt beside the litter, tipped it a little and turned Smoke’s head. It flopped like he had no bones in his neck. Smoke gurgled and hacked some more.
“Hush,” One-Eye said.
I looked up. A tall Shadar watchman was headed our way, carrying a lantern. One of the Old Man’s innovations, the night-time foot patrols have crippled enemy espionage efforts. Now our creativity was about to turn around on us.
The turbaned soldier walked past so close his grey pants actually brushed me. But he sensed nothing.
One-Eye is no master sorcerer but he does a hell of a job when he concentrates.
Smoke made that noise again.
The Shadar stopped, looked back. His eyes widened. They were about all that could be seen between his turban and his massive beard. I do not know what he saw but he touched his forehead and swept his fingers in a quick half circle ending over his heart. That was a ward against evil common to all the peoples of Taglios.
He moved on hurriedly.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Never mind,” One-Eye said. “Let’s get him loaded.” The wagon was waiting right where Sleepy was supposed to leave it. “He’s going to report something. He’ll have his whole family here in a few minutes.”
The watchmen were equipped with whistles. Our man remembered his and started tooting as One-Eye lifted his end of the litter. In seconds another whistle answered. “He going to keep that shit up?” One-Eye asked.
“I’ll lay him on his side. The phlegm should drain off. But you’re the guy who knows the medical stuff. If he’s coming down with pneumonia you better start working on him now.”
“Go teach granny to suck eggs, Kid. Just shove the little bastard in the wagon, then get your ass back through that door.”
“Shit. I think I forgot to wedge it open.”
“I’d call you a dumb shit but you keep ragging me about stating the obvious. Unh!” He swung his end of the litter into the bed of the wagon. Good boy Sleepy had remembered to leave the tailgate down, exactly as he had been instructed. “I remembered for you.”
“You were the last one out anyway.” Damn, would I be glad when Goblin came back and One-Eye could get back to feuding with him. I shoved my end of the litter.
One-Eye was scrambling up to the driver’s seat already. “Don’t forget to get that gate up.”
I twisted Smoke’s shoulders so his mouth would drain, raised the tailgate and dropped the oak pins into their slots. “You check on him as soon as you’re clear.”
“Shut up and get out of here.”
Whistles were shrieking all around us now. Sounded like every watchman on duty was closing in.
Their interest was going to attract that of others. I ran for the postern door. Steel tires began to rattle on cobblestones behind me.
One-Eye was going to get a chance to test our cover story.
It is a long trail from that postern to the apartment I call home. On the way I stopped by Croaker’s cell to let him know what had happened while we were getting Smoke out of the house. He asked, “You see anything besides the Shadar?”
“No. But the uproar is going to attract attention. If they hear that One-Eye was involved people interested in us will start poking around. They’ll be sure something was going on even if One-Eye sells his story to the watchmen.”
Croaker grunted. He stared at the papers he had been trying to read. He was bone-tired. “Nothing we can do about it now. Go get some sleep. We’re going ourselves in a day or two.”
“Uhn.” I did not look forward to traveling, especially during wintertime. “I’m not really looking forward to this.”
“Hey. I’m older and fatter than you are.”
“But you’ll be going toward something. Lady is down there.”
He grunted unenthusiastically. Any more you had to wonder about his commitment to his woman. Ever since the trouble with Blade... None of my business. “Good night, Murgen.”
“Yeah. Same to you, chief.” He did not want to be civil, that was fine with me.
I headed for my apartment, though there was nothing for me there but a bed that would give me no rest. With Sarie gone the place was a wasteland of the heart.
I closed the door behind me, looked around like maybe she would jump out laughing and tell me it was all a bad joke. But the joke was not over yet. Mother Gota still had not finished cleaning up the mess left by the Strangler raid. And, pushy though she was, she had not touched anything in my work area, where I was still sorting the burned remains of several of these Annals.
I must have gone drifting with my thoughts. Suddenly I was aware that I was not alone. I got a knife out in half a heartbeat.
I was not in trouble. The three people staring at me belonged by family right. They were my in-laws, Sarie’s brother Thai Dei with his arm in a sling, Uncle Doj and Mother Gota. Of the three only the old woman ever said much. And nothing she said was ever anything I wanted to hear. She could find the bad side of anything and complain about it forever. “What?” I asked.
Uncle Doj countered, “Did you drift away again?” He sounded troubled. “When did you go? Dejagore?”
“It wasn’t that. That hasn’t happened for a while.” All three continued to stare at me like I had something hanging out of my nose. “What?”
Uncle Doj said, “There is something different about you.”
“Shit. Goddamned right there is. I lost a wife that meant more to me than—” I clamped down on the rage. I turned toward the door. No good. Smoke was in a wagon headed south. They continued to stare at me.
It was like this every time I came back after going out without letting Thai Dei tag along. They did not like me getting out of their sight.
That and their stares gave me a little shiver of the sort of feeling Croaker got every time he looked at one of the Nyueng Bao. Sarie being gone left a vacuum bigger than the one that emptied my heart. She had been the soul that made this weird bunch work.
Uncle Doj asked, “Do you wish to walk the Path of the Sword?”
The Path of the Sword, the complex of ritualized exercises associated with his two-handed longsword style of fighting could become almost as restful and free of pain as was walking with the ghost. Although Uncle Doj has been teaching me since I became part of the family, it is still difficult for me to get into the sort of trance the Path requires.
“Not now. Not tonight. I’m tired. Every one of my muscles aches.” Yet another way I was going to miss Sarie. That green-eyed angel had been an artist at massaging out the accumulated tensions of the day.
We were speaking Nyueng Bao, which I use fairly well.
Now Mother Gota demanded, “What you doing, you, you hide from your own?” in her abominable Taglian. She refuses to believe she does not speak the language like a native.
“Work.” Even without the Old Man’s paranoia I would have kept Smoke to myself. Hell, I’m taking a huge risk just mentioning him in these pages even though I’m scribbling them in a language hardly anyone down here even speaks, let alone reads.
Soulcatcher is out there somewhere. Our precautions against her discovering Smoke are more elaborate than those keeping the Radisha and the Shadowmaster away.
Catcher was in the Palace not long ago. She stole those Annals that Smoke hid before his disaster. I am pretty sure she did not notice Smoke himself. The network of confusion spells around him is supposedly extremely subtle on its fringes, so that even a player as powerful as Soulcatcher would not notice the misdirection unless she was really focused on finding something like it.
I told them, “I just talked to the Captain. He said the headquarters group will leave tomorrow or the next day. You’re still determined to go?”
Uncle Doj nodded. He did not seem emotional when he reminded me, “We too have a debt to repay.”
The few material possessions the three shared were packed and piled by the apartment door already. They had been ready to go for days. I was the one who needed to focus and finalize my preparations. I had lied to Croaker when I had said I was ready to travel.
“I’m going to bed now. Don’t wake me up for anything but the end of the world.”
Sleep is not an escape from pain. In sleep there are dreams. In sleep I go places more horrible than those I walk when I am awake.
In dreams I still go back to Dejagore, to the death and disease, the murder and the cannibalism and the darkness. In dreams Sarie still lives, whatever the horror of the place she walks.
That night my dreams did not restore me to the wonder of Sarie’s company.
I remember only one. It came first as a shadow, an all enveloping malice full of playful cruelty, as though I was sinking into the soul of a spider that enjoyed tormenting its victims. The malice did not take note of me. I passed through to its other side. And there the dream wrenched sideways, twisted, and took on life, though it was a life entirely of black and white and greys.
I was in a place of despair and death. The sky was lead. Bodies rotted around me. The stench was strong enough to drive the buzzards away. The sick vegetation was coated with what looked like thick grasshopper spit. Only one thing moved, a distant flock of mocking crows.
Even amidst my horror and revulsion I felt that the scene was familiar. I tried to hang on to that thought, to pursue it, to sustain my sanity by ferreting out why I would know a place I had never been. I stumbled and tripped across a plain of bones. Pyramids of skulls were my milemarks.
My foot slipped on a baby’s skull that spun and went rattling off to the side. I fell. And fell. And then I was in another place.
I am here. I am the dream. I am the way to life.
Sarie was there.
She smiled at me, then she was gone, but I clung to her smile as the only thing capable of letting me keep my head above the waters of a sea of insanity.
I was in that other place. It was a place of golden caverns where old men sat beside the way, frozen in time, alive but unable to move so much as an eyelash. Their insanity slashed the air like a million dueling razors. Some were covered with glittering webs of ice, as though a million fairy silkworms had spun them into cocoons of delicate threads of frozen water. An enchanted forest of icicles hung from the cavern roof.
I tried to dash forward, past the old men, to get out of that place. I ran as you run in dreams, slowly going nowhere.
And then the horror worsened as I realized that I knew some of those mad old men.
I ran harder, into the treacly resistance of animate evil laughter.
I swung wildly at whoever was touching me, flung my hand under my pillow to recover the dagger hidden there. A powerful blow slammed my wrist as it came into the light. A strong voice snapped, “Murgen.”
I focused. Uncle Doj stood over me. He looked grave, troubled. Thai Dei stood near the foot of my bed, where he could take me from behind if I jumped up at Doj. Mother Gota stood in the doorway, agitated.
Uncle Doj said, “You were screaming in a language none of us knows. We found you wrestling with the darkness when we arrived.”
“I was having a nightmare.”
“That was obvious.”
“Sarie was there.”
For one instant Mother Gota’s face became a mask of rage. She muttered something softly and too quickly for me to follow, but I did catch the name Hong Tray and the word “witch.” Sahra’s grandmother Hong, long dead, was the only reason her family had accepted our relationship. Hong Tray had given her blessing.
Ky Dam, Sahra’s grandfather, also gone now, had claimed his wife possessed the second sight. Perhaps. I had seen her forecasts work out during the siege of Dejagore. Mostly they had been very sybilline, very vague, though.
I had heard Sarie described as a witch, too, on one occasion.
“What is that smell?” I asked. The shakes had left me. Already I could recall details of the nightmare only through determined effort. “There a dead mouse in here?”
Uncle Doj frowned. “This was not one of your journeys through time?”
“No. It was more like a trip to hell.”
“Do you wish to walk the Path of the Sword?” The Path was Doj’s religion, his main reason for being, it sometimes seemed.
“Not right away. I want to get this down while I still remember it all. It might be important. Some of it seemed familiar.” I swung my feet to the floor, aware that I was still being scrutinized intently.
There was a lot more of that now that Sarie was gone.
It was not yet time to make a point of it.
I went to my writing area, settled and got to work. Uncle Doj and Thai Dei found their wooden practice swords and began to loosen up on the other side of the room.
Mother Gota continued to talk to herself as she got busy cleaning up. As long as she was in the mood I even let her help with my mess, offering suggestions from the corner of my mouth just often enough to keep her simmering.
The great dark ragged square settled slowly through the air, rocking unpredictably in winter’s icy breath. A screech of pain soared up above the complaints of the wind. Twice the tattered carpet tried to set down atop the tower where the Shadowmaster stood waiting. Twice the wind threatened it with disaster. The carpet’s master howled again and descended fifty feet to a larger and safer landing area atop Overlook’s massive wall.
The Shadowmaster cursed the weather. This winter gloom was almost as bad as night. Here, there, shadows came to life in unpredictable corners. All his labor and genius could not take away every cranny where they might lurk. In his ideal world he would halt the sun itself directly above the fortress where it could sear the heart out of the night and slay the terrors that lurked within.
Longshadow did not go down to meet his henchman the Howler. He would make the deformed little cripple come to him. In conversation he could pretend that they were equals but that was not true. A day would come when the Howler would have to be disposed of altogether. But that time was a long way off yet. Those damnable nuisances from the Black Company had to be buried first. Taglios had to be chastised with fire and shadow. Its priests and princes had to be expunged. Senjak had to be taken and milked of her every dark secret, then she had to be destroyed, utterly and for all time. Her mad, flighty sister Soulcatcher had to be hunted down, murdered, and her flesh thrown to wild dogs.
Longshadow giggled. Much of that he had said aloud. When he was alone he did not mind verbalizing his thoughts.
His list of people to be rid of grew almost daily.
Here were two more now.
The first two faces to rise from the stairwell were those of the Strangler Narayan Singh and the child his Deceivers called the Daughter of Night. Longshadow met her eye only for a moment. He turned to look out over the devastation north of Overlook. A few fires still burned in the ruins.
The child was barely four but her eyes were windows to the very heart of darkness. It seemed almost as if her monster goddess Kina sat behind those hollow pupils.
She was almost as frightening as those living wisps of darkness that, because he could command them, gave him the title Shadowmaster. She was a child only in flesh. The thing inside was ages older and darker than the dirty, skinny little man who served as her guardian.
Narayan Singh had nothing to say. He stood at the edge of the parapet and shuddered in the chill wind. The child joined him. She did not speak, either, but she showed no interest in the ruined city. Her attention was on him.
For half a heartbeat Longshadow feared she could read his mind.
He stirred his long, bony frame toward the stairwell, concerned that Howler was leaving him alone too long with these bizarre creatures. He was startled to find the Nar general Mogaba, his leading commander, coming up the steps behind the little sorcerer, engaged in a vigorous conversation in an unfamiliar tongue.
The Howler was floating in the air, as he often did even when not piloting his carpet. He spun himself around. “The story is the same from here to the Plain of Charandaprash. And east and west as well. The quake spared no one. Though the damage becomes smaller the farther north one travels.”
Longshadow turned instantly, stared south. Even in winter’s advancing gloom that plain up there seemed to glitter. Now it even seemed to mock him, and for a moment he regretted the impulse that had led him to challenge it so many years ago. He had gained all the power he had dreamed of then and had not known a moment of peace since.
By its very existence the place beyond Shadowgate taunted him. Root of his power, it was also his bane.
He saw no evidence that the quake had disturbed anything there. The gate, he believed, should be proof against all disasters. Only one tool could open the way from the outside in.
He turned back to find the child smiling, one white tooth showing like a diminutive vampire fang. She combined the scariest effects of both her mothers.
Howler shrieked a shriek he cut short partway through. “The destruction leaves us no choice but to defer the labors of empire till the populace can sustain them once more.”
Longshadow raised a bony, gloved hand to his face, to adjust the mask he always wore in company. “What did you say?” He must have heard wrong.
“Consider the city before you, my friend. A city which exists only to build this fortress ever taller and stronger. But those who live there must eat in order to have the strength to work. They must have shelter from the elements, else they weaken and die. They must have some warmth and water that does not lead them to their deaths with dysentery.”
“I will not coddle them. Their only purpose is to serve me.”
“Which they can’t do if they’re dead,” the black general observed. “The gods have taken a dislike to us lately. This earthquake hurts us more than all the armies of Taglios have in all the years of this war.”
That was a hearty exaggeration, Longshadow knew. His three fellow Shadowmasters were dead. Their great armies had perished with them. But he got the message. The situation was grim.
“You came to tell me that?” It was presumptuous of the general to come to Overlook unbidden. But Longshadow forgave him. He had a soft spot in his heart for Mogaba, who seemed much like his own younger self. He indulged the Nar where he would have endured far less from his other captains.
“I came to ask you one more time to reconsider your orders forcing me to remain immobile at Charandaprash. After this disaster, more than ever, I’ll need flexibility to buy time.”
It was an old, old argument. Longshadow was weary of it. “If you cannot carry out your orders as given, General, without questioning everyone and nagging me continuously, then I’ll find someone who will. That fellow Blade comes to mind. He’s done wonderful things for us.”
Mogaba inclined his head, said nothing. He particularly did not note that Blade’s successes came because he was allowed exactly the sort of freedom of decision and movement that Mogaba had been petitioning for for almost two years.
Longshadow’s outburst was not unexpected. But Mogaba felt obligated to try, for the sake of his soldiers.
The Strangler Singh took a step toward the Shadowmaster. His odor preceded him. Longshadow shrank back. The little man said, “They are moving against us. There is no longer any doubt.”
Longshadow did not believe that because he did not want it to be true. “Winter has only just begun.” But when he glanced at the Howler the crippled little sorcerer nodded his rag covered head.
He stifled a shriek stillborn. “It’s true. Everywhere I look Taglian forces are on the move. None are large but they are everywhere, following every possible road. Singh’s attempt to assassinate their top people seems to have set them off.”
Singh’s failed attempt, Longshadow did not say aloud. His own espionage resources were feeble now but they had gotten that much back to him. The alliance with the Stranglers was very unpopular and therefore very precarious. The Deceivers were loved no more in the Shadowlands than they were in the Taglian Territories.
Mogaba moved his feet but held the remark eager to force its way past his teeth. Longshadow knew exactly what it was. The general wanted to be allowed to strike the Taglian bands before they could gather into a large force on the Plain of Charandaprash.
“Howler. Find Blade. Tell him to deal with as many of these small forces as he can. General.”
“Sir?” Mogaba had to strain to keep his voice neutral.
“You may send some of your cavalry north to harass the enemy. But only some and only cavalry. If I find you interpreting me as having turned you loose you will indeed be turned loose. On the other side of the Shadowgate.” It had been a long time since he had sent someone through to watch him die a cruel death. He just had no time for himself anymore. Nor could he open the way these days, without the Lance. The only other key had been stolen long ago by one of his dead colleagues. He did not have the necromantic power to call up their shades and compel the villain to reveal where the thing was buried. “Have I made myself clear?”
“Absolutely.” Mogaba stood a hair straighter. The concession was not much but it was something. The terrain north of Charandaprash was not suited to cavalry maneuvers, though, so he would have to use his horsemen as mounted infantry. Still, it was an opportunity. “Thank you, sir.”
Longshadow glanced sideways at the child, who almost never spoke. He surprised a look of complete disdain that vanished even as his gaze shifted, disappearing so quickly it seemed nothing more than a flicker of imagination.
The Shadowmaster let his gaze travel on to the plain of glittering stone. Once he had been driven by an obsessive need to learn about that place. Now he just hated it and wished it would go away, but he needed it, too. Without it he would be feeble, no match for the likes of Howler or the woman Soulcatcher, whose madness and enmity were entirely unpredictable. She seemed a complete child of chaos.
“Where is the one called Soulcatcher?” he asked. “Has there been no sign?”
Howler, who had had a report from a skrinsa shadowweaver whose circle directed a colony of spy bats, lied, “Nothing. Though there was something strange that happened in Taglios about the time Jamadar Singh’s brothers infiltrated the Palace. Could have been her.” A shriek twice as long and piercing as normal ripped itself from the little sorcerer. He began to shake and shudder and spit.
Even the child took a step back.
Nobody offered to help.
Four days passed before Croaker was ready to leave Taglios. He spent most of that time arguing with the Radisha. Their sessions were private. I was not allowed to sit in. The little I heard from Cordy Mather later suggested they had butted heads vigorously. And Cordy had not gotten to hear a tenth of what was said.
I do not think Cordy is real pleased with his role around here anymore. More and more the Radisha treats him the way some powerful men treat their mistresses. He is supposed to be the commander of the Royal Guards and he has done a damned good job there but the more he plooks the Woman the more she seems to think he is just a toy, not to be trusted with anything substantive.
If he had not been feeling irritable about it he would not have mentioned the conflict.
“Same old same old?” I asked. “Expenses?” Over the years Croaker got the Radisha to buy millions of arrows, hundreds of thousands of spears and javelins, tens of thousands of lances and saddles and sabers. He filled warehouses with swords and shields. He acquired mobile artillery accompanied by ammunition caissons. He accumulated dray horses, mule and ox teams by the dozens of hundreds. He had war elephants and work elephants. Lumber enough to raise new cities. A thousand unassembled box kites big enough to lift a man...
“Same old,” Mather admitted. He tugged angrily at his tangled brown hair. “He apparently expects this to go bad.”
“The winter offensive. That’s what the squabbling was about. Starting to accumulate replacement stuff now in case this goes bad.”
“Hmm.” That sounded like the Old Man. He could never make enough preparations. Which was probably why, as the passion of his response to the Strangler raid waned, he seemed ever less eager to throw everything into the fray.
But knowing Croaker the arguments could be a diversion, too. He might just be trying to scare the Radisha into being reluctant to pull any political stunts while he was away.
“He was close to the line.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a point where the Woman just won’t argue anymore.”
“Oh.” Enough said. I understood. If the Old Man went any further he would have to exercise his warlord’s powers and place the Princess under arrest. And would that ever stir up a nest of vipers.
“He’d do it,” I told Mather. I assumed word would get back to the Woman. “But not over war materiel. I don’t think. If the Prahbrindrah Drah and Radisha don’t live up to their promises to help the Company get back to Khatovar, though... The Captain could turn unpleasant.”
Taking us back to the Company’s origins in fabled Khatovar had been Croaker’s main passion for nearly a decade now. If you pressed him a little, sometimes an almost fanatical determination shimmered behind the usual coterie of masks he presents to the world.
I hoped Cordy would take that message to his bedmate. Also, I was kind of poking an anthill with a stick to see if, in his funk, he would reveal the royal thinking about our quest.
It was not something the Prince and his sister discussed, mostly because the Prahbrindrah Drah had taken a liking to life in the field and just did not see his sister anymore. Walking with the ghost told me nothing.
But Smoke was evidence in his own way. It was his terrified determination to keep the Company away from Khatovar that had led him to defect to the Shadowmaster and thereby put himself into a position where he might be stricken. As Lady noted in her contribution to these Annals, the rulers of Taglios, both religious and lay, have no more love for us than they do for the Shadowmasters. But we have been gentler. And if we vanish from the stage prematurely they will have only a short time to regret our passing.
Longshadow has no use whatsoever for priests. He exterminates them wherever he finds them. Which may be one more reason why Blade deserted to his cause. Mather’s old friend has the most pernicious case of priest hatred I have ever encountered.
“How do you feel about Blade?” I asked. The question would divert Mather from wondering about my agenda.
“I still don’t understand. It just doesn’t make any sense. Did he catch them doing it?”
“I don’t think so.” I knew. I had walked with the ghost. Smoke can take me almost anywhere. Even the past, back almost to the very moment when the demon burst in upon him and drove him into hiding in the farthest shadows of his mind. But even after having used Smoke to go observe the actual furious encounter between Blade and the Old Man, alcoholically enhanced, and indeed over Blade’s too obvious interest in Lady, I still did not understand. “But I’ll tell you, with the Prince and Blade and Willow Swan and about every other guy in town drooling all over themselves every time Lady walks by, I don’t know as I blame him for finally blowing up.”
“Just about as many guys looked at your wife the same way. She was probably the most beautiful woman any of them ever saw. You didn’t blow.”
“I think that’s a compliment, Cordy. Thanks. For me and Sarie both. You want me to be honest, I think it was more than Lady. I think the Old Man thinks Blade was planted on us somehow.”
“Yeah. But you got to know his background.” Cordy was born in my end of the world. He knew the way things were. “He spent years dealing with the Ten Who Were Taken. Those monsters laid out schemes that took decades to unfold.”
“And some are still around. Why Blade in particular?”
“Because we don’t know anything about him. Except that you dragged him out of an alligator pit. Or something.”
“And you do know about me and Willow?”
“Yes.” I did not explain that my Company brothers Otto and Hagop had gone all the way back to the empire and, in passing, had rooted around in the pasts of army deserters Cordwood Mather and Willow Swan.
That did not leave Mather feeling comfortable.
It never hurt to have our paranoia worry somebody else so much they behaved themselves.
I glanced at Thai Dei. He was always there. But I never forgot that. He might be my bodyguard and brother-in-law and might owe me for saving the lives of some of his family and I might even like him fairly well but I never talked about anything substantial in front of him using Taglian or Nyueng Bao unless there was no other choice.
Maybe the Old Man’s paranoia was rubbing off on me. Maybe it came from how Thai Dei and Uncle Doj and Mother Gota sometimes seemed almost indifferent to Sahra’s murder. They acted as though the death of Thai Dei’s son To Tan was ten times more important... They had chosen to stay with me, to take part in the journey south to extract revenge, then seemed to give the matter little more thought. For me Sarie’s memory is a holy thing, due its moments every day.
Me thinking about Sarie is not a good thing, though. Every time I do I want to run to Smoke. But Smoke is not there for me now. One-Eye did get him out of town and even with the little wizard unlikely to be in a hurry the ghostwalker was getting farther and farther away.
Croaker sent word that he wanted to see me. I went to his hole in the wall, started to knock but heard voices inside. I paused, glanced at Thai Dei. He was not big and not handsome and was always so impassive you could not begin to guess what he was thinking. At the moment, though, he did not appear to have heard anything he should not. He just stood there scratching around the splints on his broken arm.
Then there was a raucous outbreak that sounded like crows squabbling.
I pounded on the door.
The noise stopped instantly. “Enter.”
I did so in time to see a huge crow flap out the one small window in Croaker’s cell. A twin of the first perched atop a coatrack that looked like it had been rescued from the gutter. Croaker did not much care about material things.
“You wanted me?”
“Yeah. Couple of things.” He spoke Forsberger from the start. Thai Dei would not get it but Cordy Mather would if he happened to be listening. And so would the crows. “We’re going to pull out before sunrise. I’ve decided. A few of the top priests are starting to think I won’t do them the way Lady did, so they’re trying to push a little here and there, test the waters. I figure we’d better hit the road before they get me tied up in knots.”
That did not sound quite like him. When he made deaf-mute signs as he finished I knew the speech was for other consumption even if it was factual.
Croaker pushed a folded scrap of paper across. “Take care of that before we go. Make sure you don’t leave any evidence to tie it to us.”
“What?” That did not sound good at all.
“Be ready to move. If you really have to drag the in-laws along have them ready to go, too. I’ll send word.”
“Your pets tell you anything I need to know?” Like I did not know that they were not his pets at all but spies or messengers from Soulcatcher.
“Not lately. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be the first to know.”
This was one of those points where the paranoia grabbed me. I could not be sure of the actual relationship between Croaker, Soulcatcher and those crows. I had to take him completely on faith at a time when my faith in everything was being tested severely on every hand.
“That’s it. Make sure you’ve got everything you need. It won’t be long.”
I opened the scrap of paper by the light of one of the few lamps illuminating the corridor between Croaker’s apartment and mine. I made no attempt to keep Thai Dei from seeing it. He is illiterate. Plus the note was written in the formal language of Juniper, as though to a bright six-year-old. Which was lucky for me since I have only a vague familiarity with the language, from documents dating back to the time the Company spent there, before I joined.
Soulcatcher was dead in those days. I suppose that is why Croaker chose to use that language. It was one he felt she was unlikely to know.
The message itself was simple. It instructed me to take the Annals I had recaptured from Soulcatcher, who had stolen them from where Smoke had had them hidden from us, and conceal them in the room where we had kept Smoke hidden.
I wanted to go back and argue. I wanted to keep them with us. But I grasped his reasoning. Soulcatcher and everyone else with an interest in keeping us and those Annals apart would assume that we would keep them close till we could decipher them. Out there in the field we would not have time to worry about protecting them. So we might as well hide them in a place that, right now, only the Radisha knew existed.
“Shit,” I said softly, in Taglian. No matter how many languages I learn I always find that word useful. It has pretty much the same meaning in every tongue.
Thai Dei did not ask. Thai Dei almost never does.
Behind me, more than the next lamp away, Croaker came out of his cell with a black blob perched on his shoulder. That meant he was going to see somebody native. He thought the crows intimidated the Taglians.
I told Thai Dei, “This is something I have to handle myself. Go tell Uncle Doj and your mother that we’ll be leaving sometime during the night. The Captain has decided.”
“You must accompany me partway. I cannot find my way in this great tomb.” He sounded like he meant it, too.
Nyueng Bao keep their feelings well hidden but I saw no reason why someone who had grown up in a tropical swamp should feel at home inside an immense pile of stone. Especially since all his past experience with cities and big buildings had been negative in the extreme.
I hurried to get him back into territory he knew well enough to walk alone. I had to get into Croaker’s cell fast, before he and his feathered friend returned. That is where we were keeping the books right now. We did not want anyone to know we had them though Soulcatcher surely suspected if she was aware that they had been stolen from where she had hidden them.
What a convoluted game.
I felt my wrist to make sure I still wore the loop of string that was really an amulet One-Eye had given me so I would be immune to all the spells of confusion and misdirection around the chamber where we kept Smoke.
Even before I collected the books, noting that Croaker had shooed all crows, closed the window and covered it with a curtain, I was thinking how best to conceal them once I had them where Croaker wanted them to go.
It would not be long after we left that the Radisha would start wondering who was taking care of the wizard now. My bet was that she would start looking for him. She was stubborn enough to find her way to the room.
Though she had shown little interest in Smoke lately she had never given up hope of bringing him back. If we enjoyed many successes against the Shadowmaster she would want his help even more.
Everything we did seemed to have potentially unpleasant consequences.
When the Old Man decides to move he moves. It was still tomb dark when I left the Palace and found him waiting with two of the giant black stallions that had come down from the north with the Black Company. Specially bred during the Lady’s heyday, with sorcery instilled into their very bones, they could run forever without getting tired and could outrace any mundane steed. And they were almost as smart as a really stupid human.
Croaker grinned down at my in-laws. They were completely nonplussed by this development. How were they supposed to keep up?
Kind of pissed me off, too. “I’ll handle it,” I said in Nyueng Bao. I handed Thai Dei my stuff, climbed the monster Croaker had brought for me. It had been a long time since I had ridden one but this one seemed to remember me. It tossed its head and snorted a greeting. “You too, big boy.” I took my stuff from Thai Dei.
“Where’s the standard?” Croaker demanded.
“In the wagon with One-Eye. Sleepy put it there before—”
“You let it out of your control? You don’t ever let it out of your control.”
“I was thinking about giving Sleepy the job.” Standard-bearer was one of the hats I wore. And not one of my favorites. Now that I am Annalist I should be passing it on. Croaker has mentioned that himself on occasion. “Give me your stuff now,” I told Thai Dei once I had mine settled in front of me.
Thai Dei’s eyes got big as he realized what I intended.
I told Mother Gota and Uncle Doj, “Stay on the stone road all the way and you’ll catch up with the army. If you’re stopped show the soldiers your papers.” Another innovation of the Liberator. More and more people involved in the war effort were being given bits of paper telling who they were and who was responsible for them. Since hardly anybody was literate the effort did not seem worthwhile.
Maybe. But the Old Man always has his reasons. Even when those are simply to confuse.
Croaker realized what I was doing just as I extended my hand to help Thai Dei climb. He opened his mouth to raise hell. I said, “Don’t bother. It ain’t worth a fight.”
Thai Dei looks like a skull with a thin layer of dark leather over it at the best of times. Now he looked as though he had just heard a death sentence pronounced. “It’ll be all right,” I told him, realizing he had never been on a horse. The Nyueng Bao have water buffalo and a few elephants. They do not ride those, except as children sometimes, helping with the plowing.
He did not want to do it. He really did not. He looked at Uncle Doj. Doj said nothing. It was Thai Dei’s call.
Croaker must have started looking smug or something. Thai Dei stared at him for a moment, shuddered all over, then extended his good hand. I pulled. Thai Dei was as hard and tough as they came but he weighed almost nothing.
The horse gave me a look nearly as ugly as the one I had gotten from my boss. The fact that they are capable of a job does not make the beasts eager to do it.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Croaker said.
He headed out. The pace he set was savage. He rode like he could feel no pain. He grumbled and fussed at me to keep up. He grumbled even more after we collected a cavalry escort south of the city. The regular horses had no hope of matching the pace he wanted to set. He had to keep waiting for them to catch up. Usually he was well ahead, surrounded by crows. The birds came and went and when we exchanged words he always knew things like where Blade was, where our troops were, where there was resistance to the Taglian advance and where there was none. He knew that Mogaba had sent cavalry north to blunt our advance.
It was weird. The man just plain knew things he should not. Not without walking with the ghost. And One-Eye was still ahead of us, making much better time than I would have believed possible had we not been trying to catch him.
Croaker got over his snit after the first day. He became social again. Headed for the Ghoja Ford, he asked, “You remember the first time we came here?”
“I remember rain and mud and misery and a hundred Shadowlanders trying to kill us.”
“Those were the days, Murgen.”
“They were as close to hell as I want to get. And that’s said from the viewpoint of a man who’s been a whole lot closer.”
He chuckled. “So thank me for this nice new road.”
“Thank you for the nice new road.” The Taglians called it the Rock Road or Stone Road. The first time we traveled it, it had been nothing but a snake of mud.
“You really think Sleepy is right for the standardbearer job?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. I’m not ready to give it up yet.”
“This is the same Murgen who complained that he’s always the first guy into every scrape?”
“I said I’ve been thinking. I find I’ve got some extra motivation.” Our other companions told me I was handling Sarie’s loss pretty well. I thought so myself.
Croaker looked back at Thai Dei, who was clinging desperately to a swaybacked dapple mare we had picked up thirty miles back. He was handling his problem moderately well, too, for a guy who could use only one hand.
Croaker told me, “Don’t let motivation get in the way of good sense. When all the rest is said and done we’re still the Black Company. We get the other guys to do the dying.”
“I’m in control. I was a Black Company brother a lot longer than I was Sarie’s husband. I learned how to manage my emotions.”
He did not seem convinced. And I understood. He was concerned not about me as I existed right now but as I would in a crunch. The survival of the whole Company might hinge on which way one man jumped when the shitstorm hit.
The Captain glanced back. Despite their best efforts our escort had begun to string out. He paid no attention to them. He asked, “Learned anything about your in-laws?”
“Again?” He never let up. And I did not have an answer for him. “How about ‘love is blind’?”
“Murgen, you’re a damned fool if you really believe that. Maybe you ought to go back and reread the Books of Croaker.”
He lost me there. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve got me a lady, too. Still alive, granted. We’ve got plenty tied up in each other. We made us a baby together. Any two fools can do that by accident, of course, but it’s usually a benchmark in a relationship. But what we have as man and woman, father and mother, doesn’t mean I trust Lady even a little in any but that one way. And she can’t trust me. It’s the way she’s made. It’s the life she lived.”
“Sahrie never had any ambitions, boss. Except maybe to get me to actually go into the farming I’m always talking about so I wouldn’t get skragged gloriously in some typically heroic military manner like falling off a horse and drowning while I was crossing a creek during the rainy season.”
“Sahra never worried me, Murgen. What bothers me is this uncle who doesn’t act like any other Nyueng Bao I’ve ever seen.”
“Hey, he’s one old guy who has a thing about swords. He’s a priest and his scripture is sharp steel. And he’s got a grudge. Just keep him pointed toward the Shadowmaster.”
Croaker nodded grimly. “Time will tell.” He did grim very well.
We crossed the great stone bridge Lady had ordered built at Ghoja. Crows filled the trees on the southern bank. They squabbled and carried on and seemed to find us highly amusing.
I said, “I worry more about those things.”
Croaker did not respond. He did order a halt to rest the animals. So many had gone south ahead of us that there were no well rested remounts available. Amidst all the saluting and hasty turning out of an honor guard and whatnot, I stared southward and said, “That little clown is making damned good time.” I had asked already and had learned that One-Eye was still a day ahead.
“We’ll catch him before we get to Dejagore.” Croaker eyed me as though he feared the city name would strike me with the impact of some terrible spell. I disappointed him. Thai Dei, who could follow the conversation because we were speaking Taglian, showed no reaction, either, though the siege had been as terrible for his people as for the Company. Nyueng Bao seldom betray any emotion in the presence of outsiders.
I told Thai Dei, “Give your horse to the groom and let’s see if we can’t find something decent to eat.” Living on horseback is not a gourmet’s delight.
For the same reason there were no fresh remounts, there were very few delicacies at the Ghoja fortress, but because we belonged to the Liberator’s party we were given a newly taken gamecock that was so full of juice and substance my stomach nearly rebelled at taking it in. After eating we got to stay inside, out of the cold, and get some sleep. I should have stuck to Croaker in case his talks with local commanders turned up anything that belonged in the Annals, but after a short interior debate I chose sleep instead. If he heard anything worthwhile the Old Man would tell me. If necessary I could come back with Smoke later.
I dreamed but did not remember the dreams long enough to note them down. They were unpleasant but not overpowering or so terrible Thai Dei had to awaken me.
We were back on the road before sunrise.
We overtook One-Eye passing through the hills that surround Dejagore. When I first glimpsed his wagon and realized it had to be him I started to shudder and had to fight an urge to kick my mount into a faster pace. I wanted to get to Smoke.
Maybe I had more of a problem than I wanted to admit.
I did not show it enough to be noticed, though.
One-Eye never slowed down a bit.
There had been some changes since my days of hell in Dejagore or Jaicur, as its natives called it, or Stormgard, as it was named while it was the seat of the deceased Shadowmaster Stormshadow. Poor witch, she had been totally unable to guard the Shadowlands against the storm of the Black Company.
The plain outside the city had been drained of all water and cleared of wreckage and corpses, though I thought I could still smell death in the air. Prisoners of war from the Shadowlands still labored on the city walls and inside the city itself. Why seemed problematic. There were almost no Jaicuri left alive.
“Interesting notion, planting the plain in grain,” I said, seeing what looked like winter wheat peeping through last year’s stubble.
“One of Lady’s ideas,” Croaker replied. He still watched me as though he expected me to start foaming at the mouth any minute. “Anywhere there is a permanent garrison one of the responsibilities of the soldiers is to raise their own food.”
When it came to the logistics of war Lady was more the expert than Croaker. Till we came to Taglios he was never part of anything bigger than the Company. Lady had managed the warmaking instruments of a vast empire for decades.
The Old Man simply left most of that stuff to Lady. He would rather lie back scheming his schemes and piling up the tools Lady could use.
The crop notion was not new. Lady had done the same around most of her permanent installations in the north.
You got to go with what works.
Helps keep the neighbors more tractable, too, if you are not stealing their daughters and seed grain.
“You sure you’re all right?” Croaker demanded.
We were nearly at the foot of the ramp to the north barbican. One-Eye was no more than a hundred feet ahead now, perfectly aware of our presence, but not slowing down a bit. I guess I was starting to push ahead.
“I’ve got it under control, Captain. I don’t fall off into the past anymore and I hardly ever wake up screaming. I hold it down to a little shaking and sweating.”
“Anything starts getting to you, I want to know. I expect to be here a while. You’re going to need to be able to take it.”
“I won’t screw up,” I promised.
I did not wait long after Thai Dei and I took up quarters in one of the same buildings we had occupied during the siege. Reconstruction had not reached that part of town yet. Some of the old litter still lay around. “At least they got rid of all the bones,” I told Thai Dei.
He grunted, looked around like he expected to see ghosts.
“You be all right here?” I asked. Nyueng Bao do believe in ghosts and spirits and ancestors who follow you around nagging if you have not gotten them buried properly. A lot of Nyueng Bao pilgrims passed over here without benefit of the appropriate ceremonies.
“I must be. I must have everything ready when Doj comes.”
That was a major speech for Thai Dei.
Uncle Doj was a priest of some sort. Presumably he would take this opportunity to complete what he had not had time to do four years ago.
“You go ahead. I have things to do.” Far places to see. Pain to be given the slip, though I did not admit that directly even to myself.
Thai Dei started to put his few possessions aside.
“No. It’s more of that secret Company stuff that I’m expected to do alone.”
Thai Dei grunted, almost pleased to have his time be his own.
It always was his but he would not listen when I insisted he did not owe me. If it were not for me he would not have lost his sister and son.
Arguing with a Nyueng Bao is like arguing with water buffalo. You cannot get through and after a while the Nyueng Bao loses interest in listening. Might as well save your energy.
“Wondered how long it would be,” One-Eye said when I tracked him down. He had brought the wagon into our old part of town but had not taken Smoke out. He had it backed into a tight alleyway where, I presumed, the wagon would vanish inside camouflaging spells as soon as he dealt with his team.
“Unhitch them animals, Kid, and get them over to the transient stable while I straighten up here.”
Arguing with One-Eye gets to be a little like arguing with Nyueng Bao. He goes completely deaf. He did so in this instance. He went about his business exactly as though I was not there. In the interest of efficiency I took care of the animals.
I believe I did a little grumbling about wishing Goblin was back.
That little toad of a wizard Goblin is One-Eye’s best friend and worst enemy. He was so hard to find I thought, at first, that I was having trouble getting Smoke to understand what I wanted to do. Then I tried going back to where I had seen him last, in the river delta on the edge of Nyueng Bao country. My plan was to follow him forward in time to where he was now. And that worked just fine till Goblin’s ship entered a fog bank and never came out again.
Smoke could not find him.
It took me a while to comprehend that Smoke might have been primed to shy away from what Goblin was doing. Maybe to keep One-Eye from finding out and interfering. It would be just like the little shit to blow a whole operation because he did not think before pulling some nasty practical joke on his friend.
I did some experimenting. Sure enough, Smoke had been given some special instructions. The Old Man had not given up visiting him completely.
Once I knew that, I had little difficulty getting past Croaker’s safeguards. I fear One-Eye would have had little more trouble.
I found Goblin standing on a sandy beach far down the uncharted coast of the Shindai Kus, a terrible desert that fills a vast chunk of land between the northern and southern regions of the Shadowlands. The impassable mountains called the Dandha Presh only get shorter out there before they finally wade into the ocean.
Goblin was looking out to sea. A ship rode her anchor inshore. Boats were plunging in the surf. Goblin was yammering a litany of complaints. From the faces of his companions it was safe to guess that they had heard it all before.
What the hell was Goblin doing out there on that bleak coast?
I dropped back in time to listen in from the beginning.
Goblin was tormented by hatreds. So what does the Captain do? He sends nobody else but Goblin himself off to chart the unknown coast. Goblin hated swamps. So naturally the first leg of the journey took him downriver through the delta, which was one huge swamp two hundred miles across, without one decent channel, obviously totally unfit for human habitation because only Nyueng Bao lived there.
Goblin hated sea travel almost as much as One-Eye did. So what did he get after cutting through the swamp, damned near building a canal to manage that? A goddamn ocean with waves taller than any self respecting tree. He hated deserts. So what did he find after he finally got his little fleet past the end of the swampy coast? Country so barren scorpions and sand fleas could not make a living there. You baked during the day and froze at night and you never got away from the sand. The wind blew it into everything. He had sand in his boots right now...
“I wasn’t born for this,” Goblin complained. “Nobody deserves this. Me less than most. What did I ever do to the Old Man? All right, so maybe me and One-Eye drink a little and get rowdy sometimes, but so what? It’s just youthful high spirits if Sleepy does it.”
Naturally he overlooked the fact that when he and One-Eye get drunk they always start squabbling and tend to begin throwing sloppily woven spells around, busting things up far worse than Sleepy ever could.
“A man has to cut loose sometimes, you know what I mean? Nobody ever gets hurt, do they?” That was not an exaggeration, that was an outright fabrication. “Hell, in a world where there was any shred of justice I’d be retired somewhere where the wine is sweet and the girls appreciate a man with experience. I gave the Company the best centuries of my life.”
Goblin hated being in charge. That meant having to think and make decisions. And it meant taking responsibility. Goblin hated all those things, too. He just wanted to cruise through life doing only what was necessary to get by while somebody else did the thinking and made the decisions.
Goblin hated hard work, too, and in this desert everybody was going to have to bust ass to stay alive.
I had Smoke take me up high, with the eagles had any been able to survive out there to see what had Goblin so excited.
He had not exaggerated about the desert.
Near the coast the Shindai Kus was all golden sand. The surf brought that in from the deep. Continuous gales carried that sand inland, using it to scour the skin off hills that, as they grew up and marched to the east, became the Dandha Presh. On the coast few of the hills stood more than a hundred feet above the sand. None of those showed the least sign of water erosion. It had not rained there for a thousand years.
I started to descend. Goblin and two others were walking inland slowly, testing the surface. Something exploded out of the sand ahead. An impossible something. A monster that could not exist in this world, a devil thing the size of an elephant but with more legs and hair than a tarantula plus some squidlike tentacles and a scorpion’s tail thrown in for good measure. It staggered around groggily. Obviously it had lain there a long time, awaiting the footsteps that called it forth.
Goblin’s companions fled. The little wizard cursed and said, “Another thing I hate is things that jump up out of the sand.” While the monster was still woozy he hit it with some of his best stuff.
Something like a yard wide, a three legged stained glass throwing star appeared in his hand. He used it like a throwing star. The monster bellowed in outrage as the star clipped a couple tentacles and several legs off its right side. It tried to charge Goblin, who elected for the better part of valor and hauled ass.
The monster sort of dragged itself around in a big circle, leaving ruts in the golden sand. It lost interest in the men on the beach. For a while it tried to put its severed limbs back on but the graft would not take. Finally, it just sort of shuddered fatalistically and began to dig itself back down into the sand with the limbs it still had.
“And another thing,” Goblin complained, “I hate the whole concept of the Shaded Road.”
Shaded Road was some secret project kept from me because I had had no need to know. I had overheard the name mentioned once or twice.
“I’m even beginning to wonder how much I like Croaker. This shit is pure insanity. I hope the son of a bitch gets to spend his afterlife in a place like this.”
No more need to check up on Goblin. He was fine. Like any good soldier, if he was bitching he was perfectly all right.
I went back to Dejagore.
I came back into myself inside One-Eye’s wagon. I was starving and thirsty. Smoke smelled bad. “One-Eye! I have to get something to eat. Where’s the transients’ mess?”
The little black man stuck his disgusting hat into the wagon. I could barely make out his equally ugly face. It must be getting dark out already.
“For us it’s in the citadel.”
“Isn’t that wonderful. Maybe I won’t eat the meat.” Mogaba and his cronies, still on our side then, had sat out the siege in the citadel, dining on the occasional hapless citizen of Jaicur.
“Pretend it’s chicken, it ain’t so bad,” One-Eye said, just to turn my stomach. His nose wrinkled. “Smells in here.”
“I told you. You’d better get him cleaned up.”
He tried out his baleful stare. It did not work. I said, “You have to live with him.”
I thought Croaker would want to catch up with Lady. They had not seen one another for a while. But he seemed content to rest at Dejagore, communing with his dark messengers more and more.
The crows troubled those of the Old Crew whose duties tied them to Dejagore. Candles and Wheezer came to me complaining. I told them, “He’s the boss. I guess he can like crows if he wants.” I studied Wheezer closely, unable to believe his disease had not killed him yet. He coughed almost continuously now.
“It’s what the natives think about them,” Candles said. “They’re bad omens to everybody but Stranglers.”
“I have a feeling they’ll be really bad omens for anybody who starts complaining about them. Wheezer, you on permanent assignment here?”
The old man hacked his way around an affirmative answer.
“Good. I don’t think you ought to be in the field at this time of year.”
“What good will it do to leave me back here to die alone?”
“You’re going to outlive me, you stubborn old fart.”
“I’m part of this thing now. You people all the time tell us about our history and now we got a chance to find the beginning place... I’m going to be there.”
I nodded, accepting that. That was his right.
That made me reflect on how different we were from other mercenary bands I have seen. There was almost no bullying or brutality among the men. Historically you would not have gotten in if you were the sort of shit who made himself feel good by causing pain to those around you. And if you did chances were you would not survive long.
The history and culture and brotherhood stuff is laid on early and often and if you survive long enough to give it a chance you usually go for it.
Croaker, of course, was the ultimate disciple of the Company thing. And he was able to sell everyone else. Except Mogaba. And Mogaba’s main problem with the brotherhood was that Mogaba was not in charge.
Not really relevant, except to indicate that we are not a band of misfit brutes. We are a sensitive bunch of misfits who try to care about our brothers. Most of the time.
One-Eye appeared and invited himself into the conversation, ignoring Wheezer even though the old lunger was from his own homeland. “Hey, Kid, I just saw the Troll trundling along Glimmers Like Dewdrops Street. You sure you don’t know where Goblin is? I got to get those two together.”
The Troll is what her own people call Mother Gota behind her back. She is even nastier to them than to us outsiders. We have an excuse. We were not born Nyueng Bao.
I told One-Eye, “They made real good time considering the way she walks.” My mother-in-law walks like she is terminally bowlegged and has no joints in her legs, rolling like a fat merchantman in heavy seas.
The little black man slipped a glance sidelong at Thai Dei, who was handy as always when not specifically told to stay away. Thai Dei showed signs of actual emotion. One-Eye was hoping he was not offended to the point where he was going to go flailing around...
I whispered, “Even he calls her the Troll sometimes. But do be more circumspect.” Louder, I asked, “What about Uncle Doj?”
“Didn’t see him.”
“Thai Dei. You’d better find your mother.” Uncle Doj would find us. When it suited him.
Everybody watched Thai Dei go. When he was out of earshot I murmured, “I never missed her for an instant.” I hoped Thai Dei would find some way to prolong my joy.
I said, “You ask me, she’s the perfect woman for you, not Goblin.”
“Bite your tongue, Kid.”
“I mean it.”
“You got a sick sense of humor. And you got the Old Man aggravated.”
“Way he told it, you’re a couple days overdue with your standard reports.”
“Oh oh.” That was not entirely true but it was close. “I’ll get on it right away.”
“Still wearing your bracelet?”
“Uh...” I got it. “Yeah.”
“Good. You’ll need it.”
Candles and Wheezer had no idea what we were talking about. But Candles did offer a good bit of advice as I departed. “Mind the crows,” he told me.
The crows did seem to be interested in me lately. I did not like that, but it did make sense from a viewpoint other than my own. I was very close to Croaker. Soulcatcher would want to keep an eye on me, too.
The old saw applied. Forewarned was forearmed.
I needed to catch up on events since last I had had time to spend with Smoke. I should have been surveying the front instead of checking up on Goblin. Croaker did not want to know about Goblin. Whatever the little shit was doing, it was so secret nobody was supposed to know.
The string on my wrist allowed me to approach One-Eye’s wagon without becoming disoriented or distracted, just as it had done in the maze of the Palace. The crows following me, though, began to get confused while we were still a quarter mile away. They lost me.
I wondered if that was all good. That sort of thing was sure to arouse Soulcatcher’s curiosity if she had time free from her other schemes.
I wondered if Smoke’s attitude toward Soulcatcher would be different out here, if I could get him to stalk her now that he was away from the Palace. Always, while we were there, his soul stubbornly refused to play along whenever I tried to spy on Lady’s mad sister.
I climbed into the wagon and made myself comfortable. It looked as though One-Eye had been doing a little ghostwalking of his own. Food and water were available in large quantities. I have to eat and drink a lot when I go out a lot. Ghostwalking sucks the fluid and energy out of you fast. I can see the trap there. The world Smoke walks is so comforting you could easily forget that you have to come back to eat. You could end up just like Smoke.
After a long drink and a sugar bun I lay down on the smelly mat and closed my eyes, reached out and took hold of Smoke’s soul. He seemed vaguely troubled. Usually he is blandly empty.
I could find no proximate cause for his discomfort. Maybe One-Eye was not taking care of his physical needs well enough. I had best check. After I ran my circuit.
I went out and watched the Taglian brushfire crackle through feeble Shadowlander defenses. The southerners were still groggy from the earthquake. Many places their collapse was so swift it had no chance to become a rout.
Confused reports began to reach Mogaba at Charandaprash. He relayed them to Longshadow. The Shadowmaster remained convinced that we could not manage a major winter offensive, that this was just another of Croaker’s clever attempts to direct attention away from what he was really doing.
Longshadow was getting his reports without help from Howler. The misshapen, tortured little sorcerer seemed to be on vacation. I could not find him.
Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night were holed up in a Strangler tagalong encampment near Mogaba’s main force at Charandaprash. I am not sure why but the child caught my interest. I began to roam back and forth in time, studying her. I grew troubled. I had found something the Old Man needed to know.
His daughter had some way of scrying distant events, though not as intimately as Smoke did. So far nobody, not even Singh, was listening to her, but they would when Narayan realized that all her vague oracles hit their marks.
She seemed to go into a trance each time. I wanted to study that more closely but Smoke rebelled. And this time I am not sure I blamed him. That child had an aura about her that made you shudder and think of tombs and things best left buried even out there in the emotionless space that Smoke walked.
Lady was far to the south of Dejagore, pushing herself and her soldiers. She looked extremely haggard, though hardly showing her age since she makes One-Eye look like a pup. Willow Swan, with the Royal Guards, was in her train, as was the Prahbrindrah Drah, who claimed he had to be there in order to coordinate his efforts with hers. I do not think he fooled anyone but himself. Lady was short enough of temper that she did not put up with any moon eyed crap from anybody.
Swan was troubled. The Prince was baffled. I eavesdropped on several conversations where they tried to reason out what was bothering Lady. They came up with no ideas and Lady offered no clues herself. Once again she was content to keep the bleakness and pain of her interior world to herself.
I supposed after a life as long as hers, as alone, as tormented when she was the wife of the Dominator, coming out and petitioning the help of lesser beings seemed pointless, though she was one of us maggots herself, now. More or less.
In defiance of all that was known by amateurs and experts alike, her lost powers had been coming back for years. She was not the Lady who had built the empire up north, so strong she kept ten like the Howler on leashes, as hounds to bay before her and do her dark bidding, but she was strong enough to trouble Howler and Longshadow and, I am sure, her sister Soulcatcher.
That was another wedge that had come between Croaker and Lady. The Old Man does not trust the side of her that loves the darkness. She had been too intimate with it for too long.
He fears losing her. I am afraid he is driving her away because he is not dealing with his fears very well.
Lady was becoming the terror of all who resisted her advance, that was certain. That advance was crueler than the earthquake wherever anyone fought back.
I found my Company brethren in the thick of the action everywhere, leading this band or that. Their Nyueng Bao bodyguards stayed busy. Though they were weak after years of being hunted down by Croaker and Lady, the Deceivers were aptly named. Those who remained alive were the most skilled of their kind and they shunned no opportunity to strike at the Company in honor of their goddess.
Though Mogaba had several thousand horsemen moving north they were not yet involved in the fighting. Of Shadowlander forces in the regions being swamped only Blade’s bunch had not been caught flatfooted. And Blade, after a couple of brisk and for him very satisfactory encounters with regiments raised by Taglian religious leaders, was making little effort to hold any territory. He was falling back toward Charandaprash at a pace just fast enough to make certain our forces did not get behind him.
His whole area of operations was becoming infested with the religious bands. Ever since their falling out Croaker had been allowing the priests to go after Blade virtually independent of the rest of the military. Blade hated priests and never hid that fact. Working with the Shadowmaster gave him an opportunity to express his hatred fully. In turn, the priesthoods were determined to silence him forever.
The Old Man seemed perfectly happy to allow the priests, who had a strong tradition of intrigue and interference in secular events, to spend their treasure and energy and most devout followers trying to rid him of someone he detested.
As he retreated Blade kept drawing those guys in and destroying them. For a general with no formal training he did a great job of taking advantage of his enemies’ blind spots.
All across the south forces from both sides drifted toward the Plain of Charandaprash. The big show would take place there before much longer. Certainly before winter turned.
I came and went with Smoke. Time passed, almost without meaning. The Old Man got us onto the road again. I scarcely noticed. I was too busy with Smoke. Croaker did not like me being in the wagon all the time but there was so much going on so many places that he had to put up with it in order to get the information he wanted. Though his attitude could shift with the breeze.
For a while I pretended to be sick, to give the crows and my in-laws a reason for my being in the wagon all the time. Crows are stupid. They did not catch on. But I think Uncle Doj got the idea there was something up almost before we cleared Dejagore’s south gate.
I was never a boozer or hophead. In this part of the world all the major religions frown on alcohol so there is not a lot available though One-Eye never has trouble finding the little there is. If none is around he will make some. All my life addictions scared the shit out of me. When I see a guy whose pain has driven him behind the veil of alcohol or any drug I want to flee the same weakness I fear can be found inside me.
I was becoming addicted to the freedom from pain to be found in the in between. When I was out there with Smoke the horrors of Dejagore and the agony left behind by Sarie’s murder became no more than distant, nagging aches. That weak side of me kept promising that even the faraway aches would fade if Smoke and I just kept working.
I was both happy and completely miserable at the same time. My in-laws were little help. Thai Dei, as ever, said almost nothing. Uncle Doj merely urged me to be strong. “Death and despair are what we endure all our lives. This world is all one of pain and loss illuminated only briefly by moments of happiness and wonder. We must live for those times, not bemoan their passing.”
“We must live for revenge,” Mother Gota snapped. “You old fool.” She was contemptuous as she glared at me. Nor did she spare my feelings. “My mother was a madwoman in her last days. We will be well rid of this weakling.”
Being a weakling and not much caring for this world anymore, I did not feel obliged to keep the peace. “I bet that back in the swamp they thank their lucky stars every night that you decided not to come home.”
Thai Dei became pure stone as I put him in a spot where his obligations had to butt heads.
Uncle Doj chuckled. He rested a hand on Thai Dei’s arm. “A shaft well sped, youngster. Gota, I must remind you that we are here on sufferance. The Stone Soldier accepts us for Sahra’s sake. His master does not.”
Though I have a pretty good handle on Nyueng Bao these days I knew I had missed some key part of that. I did understand that he was telling her not to piss Croaker off because he might toss them out. And that was something he could perfectly well do. He considered them little more than camp followers. And Croaker hates camp followers. He considers them worse than leeches.
I had to wonder if Uncle Doj was not interested in something more than just revenge for the murders of Sahra and Thai Dei’s son To Tan.
I am not certain where we were. I think about eighty miles south of Dejagore and passing over into territories only recently taken into our hands, where our appearance was endured with the same stoicism as the earthquake. Not much cleaning up had gotten done because the Shadowmaster’s henchmen had employed the locals in a vain attempt to blunt our advance. Brave fools. Now there was no one to bury them.
Total paranoia hit me there.
I was unaware of the fact because I was in the wagon but we were just making camp. I was out scouting the maneuvers of Mogaba’s cavalry and sitting in on his planning session for making our lives much more unpleasant at Charandaprash. I had a sneer in my heart. He would not have a single surprise for us. From having watched Lady and all the special forces she and Croaker had put together I knew we would have plenty for Mogaba.
Bright man, he expected that. He got to know Croaker pretty well before he deserted to the Shadowmaster.
Then the paranoia hit. Smugness evaporated. Had I been in flesh I would have begun to shake as though suddenly thrown into an icy river. I knew I was not alone.
I would have panicked except for the dullness of emotion out there. I did do a sort of sudden spin around on the spirit level.
For a second I thought I saw a face, not directed my way.
It was a face out of a collective nightmare, as big as a cow, the color of ripe eggplant. Its smile was all fangs. And it was smiling at whatever it saw.
Its eyes were plates of fire that, at the same time, seemed to be pools of darkness capable of drowning souls.
I withdrew, very carefully at first, but in full flight toward the safety of reality when the face seemed suddenly startled and began to turn. I emerged too terrified to be hungry or thirsty. I was shaking and babbling and making no sense at all. The Old Man was close by. One-Eye had him in the wagon by the time I got myself under control.
“What the hell happened, Murgen? You have some kind of fit? You going to start going away again on me?” He touched me, felt the shakes that still went right down to the heart of me. “One-Eye...”
I croaked out, “I just saw Kina. I don’t know if she saw me.”
Death is eternity. Eternity is stone. Stone is silence. Stone speaketh not but stone doth remember. Deep within the dark heart of the grey fastness stands a massive throne of worm-eaten wood. This throne has shifted sideways and tilted dramatically. A dark shape sprawls upon the throne, locked in enchanted slumber, nailed down by silver daggers driven through its limbs. Its once vacant face is drawn in agony.
The figure draws a deep breath. Silence yields to a great slow rumbling beat.
This is immortality of a sort but its price is paid in diamonds of pain, in treasure by the bucket.
In the night, when the wind no longer blows and small shadows no longer creep, the fortress reclaims its silence.
Silence is stone. Stone is eternity. Eternity is death.
South of Shadowlight, which offered no resistance, the land rose and became gorsy, stony, and as wrinkled as my mother-in-law’s face. Snow lurked wherever sunlight seldom fell. Trees were scattered but of a variety that clung stubbornly to some of its fruit throughout the winter. That fruit was tough and dry but it grew tastier as we moved farther from civilization and anyplace where we could acquire more palatable foods. The route the Captain insisted we follow was one that had received very little preparation. And there were no navigable waterways up which barges could carry supplies.
We had cattle along. The animals could sustain themselves poorly off the vegetation. Those of us willing to eat flesh could gnaw on their stringy meat. But we were just getting started here and already I was convinced that Croaker had made the wrong choice, attacking now.
Those soldiers who were vegetarians suffered terribly.
The morning wind had a real bite. This definitely was no season for travel. We could end up in real trouble if Mogaba held us up for long.
That might be a good strategy for him to pursue. Just hold us at Charandaprash while all our forces came together, with all their camp followers, then continue to hold us there while we exhausted our resources. Then he could slaughter the starving remnants as they tried to flee.
Though he never mentioned it in so many words, part of Croaker’s plan was to replenish our army by seizing supplies Mogaba had laid in for his. The Captain very much counted on victory now, soon, however cautiously he talked.
He had put us in a position where there was no other choice.
The region around Shadowlight remained prosperous even after the earthquake but already that was four hard days’ march behind us. Our foragers were eating up half what they gathered just bringing it in.
Longshadow remained unconvinced that our advance was for real. He had a distinct problem imagining minds working differently from his own. Mogaba entertained doubts himself though the Deceivers and his own agents kept him informed of all the disasters to the Shadowmaster’s cause. Few of the quake-battered towns and cities made more than token attempts to resist. The Captain had chosen his moment well, if emotionally.
Dark grey-indigo mountains spanned the southern horizon. Charandaprash was just days away. The Captain slowed our advance to a very deliberate pace so the soldiers would have more time to hunt and forage. Our part of the army began coming together in larger and larger forces. Mogaba’s cavalry did not seem much inclined to skirmish yet. Ahead of us streamers of smoke sometimes rose as fleeing enemy caravans failed to run fast enough to outdistance our own horsemen.
Our headquarters party clung to the road. Always, now, there seemed to be corpses lying beside it. They came in all varieties, few of them being our own people.
Croaker had forced me out of One-Eye’s wagon. I was no longer allowed inside while we were moving. So I led the way, mounted atop that giant black stallion, always presenting the Black Company standard. Crows were around constantly. I expect Soulcatcher, wherever she took their reports, was thoroughly amused. The standard was one we had adapted from one she had assigned us decades ago, based upon her own fire-breathing skull of a seal.
Uncle Doj walked beside me. He carried a lance as well as Ash Wand, his holy sword. He had assumed the job of bodyguard while Thai Dei was elsewhere with his mother. We two encountered all the corpses first. “There’s another one that looks like a Deceiver,” I said, indicating a badly hacked body wearing nothing but a ragged loincloth, despite the weather.
“It is good,” Uncle Doj told me. He rolled the corpse over. The man had been run down by someone with an especial dislike for his cult. He had been mutilated badly, mostly while he was still alive.
I did not feel a shred of pity. Men just like him murdered my Sarie.
We encountered nothing but signs of outstanding success. But those did not inspire my confidence in the future.
Roads converged. Forces massed up even more. Every hour we drew nearer Charandaprash, Mogaba and his four badass divisions of well-trained and motivated veterans. Getting closer to soldiers who had been getting ready for us for years. Getting closer to soldiers who were not the clumsy, indifferent militias that had made up most of our opposition so far. The Old Man talked confidently in front of the Taglians, who did not know any better, but I knew he had his doubts.
We would have a numbers advantage but our men had not been drilled until they were automatons. Our men did not fear their officers more than they feared death itself. Our men did not know the price you paid if you stirred the anger of a Shadowmaster. Not in the intimate way the defenders of Charandaprash knew.
Our men had not rehearsed again and again, learning every boulder on the ground where they would be expected to fight.
A breeze whipped smoke and the stench of death into my face. A soldier shouted. I glanced back. The Captain, wearing the hideous black Widowmaker armor Lady had created for him, was coming up. Ravens surrounded him. For the thousandth time I wondered about his connection with Soulcatcher.
“You sent for me?”
“There’s something you ought to see, I think.” I had not seen it myself yet, but did know what to expect.
He gestured. “Let’s go.”
We rode up a small rise. We stopped to look at the bodies of six small brown men far too old to have been soldiers. They lay inside a bowl that had been hollowed out of the hard ground, around a fire that still yielded a puny thread of smoke.
“Where are the men who killed them?”
“They didn’t hang around. You don’t take chances with these people.”
Croaker grunted, not pleased but understanding the thinking of the ordinary soldier. He removed his ugly winged helmet. Crows took the opportunity to perch on his shoulders. He seemed not to notice. “I’d say we’ve gotten somebody’s attention.”
I had run into little brown men like these before, years ago when first we had come into the south and more recently in the Deceivers’ holy Grove of Doom, where I had ambushed many of their top people. A group of these skrinsa shadowweavers had had the misfortune to be there on behalf of the Shadowmaster.
These men would have been doing the same as those others, using a gaggle of little shadows to spy and run messages. Croaker pointed. Several of the old men had had chunks ripped right out of them. He observed, “Lady did say you shouldn’t get in the way of her bamboo toys.”
We had overtaken Lady, more or less. She was following a line of advance several miles to our left. If Croaker and she had stolen a kiss they had managed it by magic. Croaker was in too big a hurry to assume complete control of his assembling center corps of two divisions.
He carried a bamboo pole slung across his back. So did I. And so did every other man in the main force, now. Some carried a bundle. “Oh?”
“She’ll pitch a fit if this gets to be a habit.” Croaker was amused.
“She never was a ground-pounder.”
Your average infantryman does not give a rat’s ass about the design function of a weapon. He is concerned about staying alive and about getting his job done with the least risk taken. The bamboo doohickeys were meant for combating killer shadows? So fucking what? If using them made taking out nasty little wizards easier, guess what was going to happen?
We sighted Lake Tanji an hour before night fell. The sudden view was so stunning I stopped dead in my tracks. The lake was miles across and cold grey. It dwindled away to my right, the direction our road ran. To our left the land was very rugged. Arms of increasingly substantial hills ran down to the water. The Dandha Presh itself seemed to rise directly from the far shore, all greys in the evening light, dark down low and lighter at the peaks, where snowfields sparkled. A playful god had scrawled a thin cloudline across the panorama, halfway up the mountains, so that the peaks rode a magic carpet.
Grey, grey, grey. Right then the whole world seemed grey.
“Impressive,” the Captain said.
“Not at all like seeing it through Smoke’s eyes.”
He frowned at me even though not even a crow was near enough to hear. “Look there.”
A village burned along the shore several miles ahead. A ball of blue light streaked out of the conflagration, over the water, narrowly missed a small boat. The men aboard the boat tried to row harder but began to catch crabs and get in one another’s way. A swarm of points of light darted at them, not only blue but green, yellow, pink and a stunning shade of violet. A man jumped up and flailed around after a ball hit him in the throat. He fell overboard. His antics rocked the boat dangerously. It shipped water, raised its stern into the air momentarily.
A ball of light zipped through its bottom, leaving a shimmering hole.
Most of the balls missed. Those continued across the lake, slowing gradually. Eventually they just drifted on the breeze and faded away.
The excitement brought a flock of crows fast. They circled overhead. Two big ones dropped onto Croaker’s shoulders. The others scattered in pairs. The boat sank.
It had been bound for an island that was little more than a rock outcrop boasting a dozen scraggly pine trees and some halfhearted brush. A crow that got close suddenly folded up and went ballistic, hit the water and floated without twitching.
Croaker glared. “Murgen. Move down the foreslope, out of the wind. Find a place to dig in for the night. Line troops only on this side of the ridge. I want a double watch kept. I want two battery wagons up, trained on that island.”
His shoulder ornaments were agitated now. I did not mention them. He was starting to go spooky and he did not answer questions anyway.
One of the ravens squawked. Croaker grunted back. He dismounted, grabbed an extra bamboo pole from a nearby soldier, headed downhill. His mount followed the trail he broke.
The soldiers who had begun to gather followed Croaker’s example. They formed a skirmish line as they advanced. I could not unsling my own bamboo pole because I was mounted and burdened with the standard. I followed the men on foot. Uncle Doj formed a one-man rearguard.
Two Shadowlander militiamen broke cover suddenly. They stumbled toward the water’s edge. Arrows swarmed.
Standing orders were to take no prisoners. The Shadowlanders had been warned. They had been given four years’ grace. They had made their choices.
Afterward the soldiers began to settle in groups, finding what shelter they could, starting their cooking fires. More and more came up to the line. Our staff group gathered in the lee of a shattered boulder, everybody grumbling and shivering. Pessimists started talking about the chances of snow.
I planted the standard. Uncle Doj and I got ready to make supper. There were no servants in this army. Servants ate up food soldiers could fix for themselves.
Supper would be rice and dried fruit. Croaker and I would add a few strips of jerked beef. Uncle Doj would add some fish meal to his rice. Many of the soldiers would eat no flesh because of religious proscriptions.
I said, “Maybe we can find out if there are any fish in this lake.”
The Old Man looked out there. “Looks like there could be trout.” But he did not say anything about maybe catching them.
The battery wagons came up. Each had a bed four feet wide by ten feet long packed with bamboo tubes. They were the ultimate product of Lady’s arsenals. The Captain supervised their positioning. He wanted them set just right.
Under this overcast it would not be long before it was dark enough for shadows to prowl.
East of the lake, where Lady’s left wing division was advancing through very rugged country, a single point of light shot into the air, sped southward, lost velocity and began to lose altitude slowly. Balls in several colors followed quickly.
The soldiers stirred nervously.
A whiff sound came from a nearby wagon. A green fireball streaked out over the lake, its light reflecting off the water. The breeze had died. The lake’s surface was growing calm.
I was more nervous than any of the soldiers. I had seen what those stinking little shadowweavers could do. I had seen men scream out their lives while something invisible gnawed at them.
The soldiers had heard the stories. The sentries would stay awake tonight.
The green ball did not dip toward that island. I sighed. Maybe there was no danger after all.
The wagon crews loosed another ball at regular intervals. Not a one dipped toward that island. I regained my confidence. The men began to relax. Eventually I rolled up in my blankets and lay there watching fireballs streak across the sky.
It was a comfort knowing no shadow attack would go undetected.
I listened to the wagon crews lay bets on what color fireball would pop out next. There was no known pattern. They were getting bored. Soon they would be bitching about getting stuck with the duty while everybody else got to sleep.
I was having a bizarre dream about Cordy Mather and the Radisha when somebody poked me. I groaned, cracked an eyelid. I knew I did not have to stand a watch. I had helped with the cooking. I cursed, pulled my blankets over my head and tried to get back to the Palace, where Mather was arguing with the Radisha about her plans to shaft the Black Company after the Shadowmaster fell. It almost felt like I was actually there rather than dreaming.
“Wake up.” Uncle Doj prodded me again.
I tried to cling to the dream. There was more to it. Something nebulous but dangerous about the Radisha. Something that had Mather upset in a major way.
I thought I might be working out something important ins my sleep.
“Wake up, Bone Warrior.”
That did it. I hated it when Nyueng Bao called me that, never explaining what they meant. I grunted, “What?”
“Trouble is coming.”
Thai Dei stepped out of the darkness. He spoke! “One-Eye told me to warn you.”
“What’re you doing up here?” His arm had not yet healed completely.
I glanced at the Captain. He was awake. He had a bird perched on one shoulder, beak moving at his ear. He eyed Thai Dei and Uncle Doj but said nothing. He clambered to his feet wearily, collected a couple of bamboo poles and trudged around to where he could see the lake. I followed him. Uncle Doj tagged along behind me. It amazed me that a man so short and wide could move so quietly and gracefully.
I saw nothing new out there in the darkness. Occasional flecks of light continued to streak the tapestry of the night. “Like fireflies.” There were a million stars. The guys who expected snow were going to be disappointed.
“Hush,” Croaker said. He was listening to something. The damned bird on his shoulder?
Where was the other one?
A crimson ball zipped away from one wagon just like scores before it. But when this one neared the island it dipped violently and swerved to the right, scattering the rippling water with ten thousand rubies. At water level the ball became a splash of blood that faded immediately.
There was no reflection off the water anywhere nearby.
A half-dozen balls streaked out. They defined a river of darkness snaking across the lake. Then balls started flying around over the remnants of the village that had been burning while that boat sank.
The discharges there reached panic level quickly. The Captain ordered, “Swing one of the wagons around. Give them some support down there. And let’s see if we can’t get a couple more wagons up here fast.”
Some individuals were plinking at the village already, for whatever help that would provide. Croaker told the crew of the second wagon, “Cut loose on that island. Everything you’ve got. Murgen. I want everybody awake and up here. The shit-storm is about to hit.”
I ran off to tap-dance on a couple of snorers famous for their bugle calls.
Both wagons cut loose about the same time. Their trigger cranks squealed and rattled as they whirled. Bamboo tubes discharged color in furious series. How many balls could a wagon launch? A shitload.
Cavalry tubes carried fifteen charges. Standard infantry and infantry long carried thirty and forty charges respectively. The hundreds of tubes on each wagon were longer still.
The fireflies went mad. Every single ball launched darted downward after a shadow. Each made its dip nearer shore.
“Lots of shadows,” Croaker observed laconically. This was a new thing but a thing we had feared for years. Shadows attacking in waves and a flood instead of sneaking around like spies and assassins.
The Old Man seemed calm. Me, I damned near drizzled down my leg. I ran, but only far enough to get hold of the standard and a bundle of bamboo. I planted the former beside the Old Man, got the business end of a pole pointed southward, found the handgrip trigger mechanism and started turning. Each quarter turn sent another fireball streaking. I told Thai Dei, “Grab you some bamboo, brother. You too, uncle. This isn’t going to be anything you can stop with a sword.”
Balls were arcing over from the far slope now. There were enough in transit to define the wave of darkness headed our way. Fireballs plunged into that darkness like bright hail, flared, faded. This was the nightmare tide we had dreaded for so long, the hellpower of the Shadowmaster unleashed.
Balls consumed shadows by the thousand. The flood came on. Unlike mortal soldiers those things could do nothing but follow commands. Sorcery compelled them.
My pole went dry. I grabbed another one. Uncle Doj and Thai Dei began to grasp the situation. They found poles and got into the act, though Thai Dei was not very fast one-handed.
The dark tide came off the water and headed upslope. As it drew closer I began to make out individual shadows.
I saw these things first way back when we first came to Taglios, in the days when there were four Shadowmasters and together they could reach a lot farther than could Longshadow now. The skrinsa shadowweavers came north to kill us. They failed. But in their time they used small shadows, few bigger than my fist. I never saw one bigger than a cat.
Some in this flood dwarfed cattle. Those absorbed fireballs with no apparent effect. I saw dozens survive multiple hits. I muttered, “Maybe Lady wasn’t as clever as she thought.”
Croaker replied, “Think what it would be like without her cleverness.”
We would be dead already. “Got you.”
Closer. Closer. The dark wall was but a hundred yards distant now, the shadows far fewer in number and moving slower but relentless nevertheless.
Now the wagons could not depress their aim low enough to hit the shadows. They shifted their attentions to that island.
Uncle Doj shouted, drew Ash Wand. I have no idea what he thought that would do to the huge clot of darkness racing straight toward us while a swarm of small shadows scurried around it like frightened offspring. No sword held any power against this darkness.
I tried to burn a hole through the clot’s heart, poised on the brink of panic.
Death ravened closer and closer.
Balls from the rear began falling around us as little shadows slithered in amongst the rocks.
The screams began.
The dark mass became a bonfire as fireballs hammered it. It slowed, slowed some more, but never stopped coming. It reared like a boar grizzly issuing his challenge. I spun my hand grip hard, yelled some kind of nonsense. That killer slice of hell’s breath strained to get at me but could not. It was as though the thing, at the last instant, had encountered some invisible and unbreakable barrier.
The darkness radiated a dank psychic horror I imagined went with the grave, a hunger known only by things undead, an odor of the soul I remembered from too many bad dreams about bone-strewn wastelands and old men bound up in cocoons of spun ice. My terror grew stronger. I yanked at my handgrip long after my pole went dry, long after there was no more reason to crank.
The shadow kept trying to get to me until the barrage of fireballs consumed its last whisper of darkness.
The excitement faded quickly. Only balls launched toward the island found many targets.
The rock outcrop was taking a pounding from Lady’s division, too, the troops over there having figured out what was happening. I thought the volume of fire so heavy it might actually consume the island.
Then Croaker ordered fire reduced to precautionary levels. “No sense wasting our tools. We’re going to run into this sort of thing again.” He stared at me for half a minute. Then he asked, “How did we get surprised like this?” He used that Juniper tongue.
I shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” I chose Forsberger because I did not know the other well enough. “I was busy carrying the standard.” Meaning I was cut off from Smoke most of the time these days for what he considered sufficient reason. He was going to have to count on One-Eye to provide his warnings.
“Shit,” he said, without much venom. “Goddamn shit. Don’t get clever with—”
A grand shriek rolled across the lake. Lady’s troops loosed a furious barrage at something that darted up from the island and raced away southward. Croaker grunted. “The Howler!”
“We got them scared now, boss. The Shadowmaster is sending the big boys out to play.”
Croaker showed me a twitch of the lip. Not much. His sense of humor had gone to hell lately. Maybe he lost it when he was Soulcatcher’s prisoner. Or maybe when he came back to find out that he was a father but chances were he would never see his kid.
We stood down eventually but hardly anyone got any more sleep.
Dawn did come. It found our dead already burned or buried by soldiers who had been unable to sleep. I did not have to look at one tormented face.
There was no shortage of tormented landscape. It looked as though small lightnings had been on a year-long rampage around the lake. Already some of the more daring troopers were down at the water’s edge collecting dead fish.
Of the things that had attacked us there was no trace at all.
Croaker suggested, “You might spend a little more time with Smoke.” Which, of course, was more than a suggestion, though given reluctantly. He had given up counting on One-Eye for anything but grief.
I glanced around. My in-laws were nowhere in sight. I told him, “One-Eye did send warning.”
“It wasn’t what I’d call timely. It must have taken Howler and Longshadow days to set last night up. We should have been ready.”
“Maybe not being ready will work out for the best, though.”
“If we’d ambushed their ambush they would’ve started wondering how we knew about it. The way it worked out they’ll just sit around cussing Lady for thinking ahead.”
“You got a point. But I still want a little more warning. Just don’t go getting hung up on ghostwalking.”
“What about the standard? I don’t know where Sleepy is these days and there isn’t another sworn brother handy.” Nobody who was not Company was going to touch our most holy of relics. The standard, actually the lance from which the standard hangs, is the only artifact we have which has remained with the Company since its beginnings. The oldest Annals have all been recopied time and time again, undergoing translation after translation.
Croaker told me, “I’ll manage it. You get sick and have to ride for a while.” He did and I did. Wearing his full Widowmaker armor he became terrible to behold once he took up the standard. A dark aura seemed to envelop him.
Much of that had to do with spells Lady had built into and onto the armor, layer after layer, for years. Even though Widowmaker was pure powerless invention, the vision was supposed to suggest something way beyond the ordinary, was supposed to stir the observer’s superstitions. So was the Lifetaker character Lady had created for herself. But hers had grown into its legend. Or had been something more than invention to start.
When Lady donned that armor she resembled one of the avatars of the goddess Kina. Some of her soldiers and more of her enemies half believed that when she donned the Lifetaker garb she became possessed by the dark goddess. I did not like that idea and did not accept it but Lady never discouraged it.
It did touch near a suspicion I have entertained from the time I first read Lady’s volume of the Annals.
Could it be possible she was still a tool of that Mother of Night? Maybe unwittingly?
Uncle Doj and Thai Dei scowled suspiciously when I told them I was sick again and was going to ride in One-Eye’s wagon for a while. I am sure Uncle Doj now knew Smoke was aboard and wanted to find out why the comatose wizard was important enough for us to carry off to war. He did not press me, though. He remained sensitive to Croaker’s scrutiny.
“How you doing, Kid?” One-Eye asked as I clambered aboard. He sounded depressed. Maybe he had a good ass-chewing from the Old Man. Again.
“You missed some big fun last night.”
“Not hardly. And I can tell you that I’m too damned old for this crap. Croaker don’t get us to Khatovar pretty damned soon I’m gonna drop out and take up leek farming.”
“I’ve got some good turnip seed. And rutabagas. I could use a manager...”
“Work for you? Bullshit. Anyway, I know where I can get me some good ground cheap. Up in the Dhojar Prine. I could take Goblin along and make him lead field hand.”
He was just making chin music and we both knew it. I suggested, “You want to run a big operation you’re going to need a good woman to help. My mother-in-law would just love to remarry.”
Sourly, he told me, “I had it all scoped out to fix Goblin up with her. That would’ve been my all-time masterpiece. But he had to go and disappear.”
“Gods just can’t take a fucking joke, can they?”
“No shit. You should get more sleep. You look like you’ve been up all night. And you’re getting a little testy.”
Like a demon summoned by the naming of its name Mother Gota came waddling around the side of One-Eye’s wagon. One-Eye squeaked in surprise. I gulped air. She was supposed to be a long way back up the road.
But, then, Thai Dei was supposed to be back there recuperating, too.
The old woman was lugging so many weapons she looked like a dwarfish arms merchant. She looked up. Her usual grim scowl was missing. She smiled at One-Eye, showing us her absent teeth.
One-Eye gave me a look of hopeless appeal. “They can’t take a joke. Not even a little one, not even once. Don’t stress him, Kid. I got the cough fixed but now he ain’t taking his soup so good.” Ignoring the Nyueng Bao woman, he settled himself on the driver’s seat, cracked a whip.
I wasted no time. I made myself comfortable and went ghostwalking.
I like the word “consternation.” It sounds like what it means.
There was a shitload of consternation surrounding Mogaba when I arrived. He and his gang had gotten an incoherent report from Howler, who was not exactly in pristine condition when he reached Charandaprash. He and his carpet both had been hit by Lady’s marksmen.
An important point was that Howler and the Shadowmaster had cooked up the night’s festivities without ever having consulted Mogaba. Mogaba was pissed off, the way generals get whenever their expertise is disdained.
Blade’s force had joined Mogaba’s. Croaker had talked about trying to cut him off but nothing had developed. There had been no time for planning and launching a strong enough force.
Usually the boss does manage to separate the wishful from the possible, whatever his own feelings.
Upon arriving, Blade took charge of the division forming Mogaba’s left flank, meaning he would be head to head with the Prahbrindrah Drah when the field armies collided. It was interesting to note that all the division commanders of the Shadowlander main force, along with the head general himself, were renegades who had gone over from our side.
They were all competent soldiers but I doubted that Longshadow cared. What mattered to him most was that they would be strongly motivated to avoid defeat and capture.
I scurried ahead to Overlook, to be there when Howler reported from the front. It ought to be entertaining. Longshadow turned into a raving, foamy-mouthed madman when things really went wrong.
I had to adjust my position in time only slightly to watch the screaming sorcerer arrive on a carpet that was a herd of holes held together by a handful of threads. It was a wonder it did not fall apart under him.
Longshadow listened to Howler’s report. He was angry but he did not fault his ally. Which was odd. He was not one to assume much blame himself. Howler observed, “She was a step ahead this time.”
“Did any of our assets survive the skirmish?” Skirmish?
“Time to keep the skildirsha behind the Dandha Presh, then. For now we’ll use them only for communications and reconnaissance. What of the skrinsa? Any out there?”
“Not living. Not that I transported.”
This was scary. Longshadow always dealt with bad news by turning into a raving lunatic.
The Howler said, “Husband those who still live. Order them to begin teaching their craft to any with the capacity to learn it. If your mighty general fails and the Company breaks through at Charandaprash, shadowweavers will be priceless.”
Longshadow grunted, fiddled with his mask. “You knew the woman. Senjak. Does she have the power to break our armies?”
“She would have in olden times. It’s possible she may be strong enough now. Unless we go up there to preoccupy her while our troops exterminate hers.”
I found it interesting that they believed Lady was in charge, whatever appearance we presented. Possibly that was because Howler had been under her thumb for so long, virtually her slave. He might not be capable of believing her anything less than the master. Too, they seemed unable to recognize the fact that our better motivated troops had beaten theirs regularly without any sorcerous, mystical or divine assistance.
Longshadow asked, “Are there a great many of them coming?”
“Yes. Although they have broken with past practice. Many are camp followers weakened by trying to live off a land already scoured by military foragers.”
True. And even the soldiers were less than one hundred percent. However much groundwork we had laid, the last leg of the journey passed through barren country.
“But their force is larger?”
“The combat force is, yes, slightly. But it consists of less disciplined troops. The evidence all says she’s made this move out of political expediency. The Taglian priesthoods have recovered from the blow she struck them four years ago. They have started testing her. She’s just diverting them. Singh’s spies say all the senior Taglians expect this campaign to end in defeat.”
“Get some rest. Prepare the other carpet. If I must go up there then I must accept the risk fully. I’ll want to arrive there before Mogaba succumbs to the temptation to take the fight to his enemies.”
Even now, after natural disaster had stalled construction on Overlook indefinitely, Longshadow was determined to stall for time instead of taking the offensive.
I am no military genius but I have read the available Annals a few times. Nowhere in there did I ever find mention of anybody who won a war sitting on his ass.
Much as I hate the man personally, professionally I can feel sorry for Mogaba. For about fifteen seconds. Before we cut his throat.
Smoke seemed untroubled and comfortable after my visit to Overlook so I left the ghostworld long enough to fill both our stomachs with food and water. He had fouled himself. One-Eye was uninclined to stop and clean him up so I did the honors while the vehicle creaked and bounced and tossed me around. The thankless chore done, I decided to relieve myself before I suffered a similar embarrassment while I was out.
It had happened before.
I found the whole Ky gang trudging along within rock-throwing distance of the wagon. One-Eye scowled down at me. He did not like having them hang so close. Especially Mother Gota, who kept trying to strike up a conversation. I grinned and headed off into the brush.
Somebody almost mistook me for a Shadowlander straggler but my luck held and I got back to the wagon in one piece. One-Eye bitched, “I’d like to lay my paws on the dickhead who decided this was a road. This damn seat is beating my ass into a paste.”
“You could get married, retire, drop out and raise turnips.”
“You got a serious attitude problem, Kid. You come on anything interesting?”
“Not really. But I’m going out again. Soon as you stop chattering.”
“Goddamn kids. You try to be nice—” The left rear wheel fell into a hole, shaking the entire wagon and shutting him up for as long as it took him to marshall an array of curses to direct at his team. I got myself comfortable with Smoke.
Since the unconscious wizard seemed especially amenable today I decided it might be time to test his limits, to see if I could push him nearer things he had refused to approach in the past.
I started with what lay south of Overlook, after just a glance in to see that nothing new was happening with Howler and Longshadow.
Kiaulune in the aftermath of disaster had no appeal. Overlook, while bright, was a mask for madness and despair. Beyond lay rocky grey slopes almost steep enough to be called an escarpment. A road ran from Kiaulune past Overlook and up the boulder-strewn slope. It was a road that had seen little traffic ever, yet it remained clearly defined. Only a few stubborn, hardy weeds had taken root there. Except for one small slide way up the hill no rocks seemed willing to remain on the road’s surface.
I tried to take Smoke in that direction.
I enjoyed no more success than I ever had, which meant I managed to cross half the distance from Overlook to the slide before Smoke refused to go any farther.
Someday the Black Company would go up that road. No one else ever went but we would go. That was the road to Khatovar. That was the road that would lead us to our origins.
From Kiaulune I rode Smoke north in a sweeping search for Soulcatcher, Lady’s mad, wicked sister. I found no obvious sign immediately but she was skilled at not being seen. I closed in on the Old Man himself, began using Smoke’s ability to move through time as well as space to backtrack the crows that follow the army and hang around him.
I fooled the coward for just a moment. For long enough to carry myself into view of Lady’s nemesis.
She was out in the wastes, all alone except for her pets. She was eating, something I had never seen or heard of Soulcatcher doing. She was gorgeous. Gorgeous like only evil can be. For an instant I felt that same twinge I had experienced the first time I saw Sahra.
Thought of Sahra startled me. Out here was my time free of that pain...
The instant I lost my focus Smoke’s cowardly soul seemed to sense how near Soulcatcher it was. It pushed away as though repelled. I did not resist. I needed to be away from there, too.
Soulcatcher was a madwoman, bold beyond reason, likely to do almost anything if it amused her. She must be having great fun lately.
If Smoke’s visions could be trusted she was less than a mile away right now, here in the middle of the army, undetected, so close she could strike anyone anywhere instantly whenever the urge came upon her. And such urges did.
The Old Man needed to know...
Or did he?
He might, reasoning that crows had a limited endurance.
I went away from there and took Smoke back to the Palace in Taglios. He seemed comfortable with that. We went to the room where he had been hidden so long. Dust was gathering there. The lost Annals were still out of sight where I had concealed them.
In another part of the Palace the Radisha was going about the daily business of ruling an empire, she and all the powerful priests and lords and functionaries going along with the pretense that she was just standing in momentarily for her brother, the Prahbrindrah Drah. As long as everybody agreed not to notice the Prince’s extended absence, the engines of state continued to function reasonably well.
In truth, though never stated publicly, the state operated much more efficiently without the Prince present to filter and soften his sister’s will.
I found the Woman and buzzed around her like an invisible mosquito, forward and backward in time, sticking my long nose into her every conversation excepting those she had with Cordy Mather when no one else was around. Much.
I heard enough to know Mather was getting used. But it was use most men willingly endure, at least for a while.
Her conversations with several senior priests were interesting, though never as explicit as I would like. The Radisha had matured in the seldom friendly environment of the Palace, where a thousand plots great and small were afoot every day, at the best of times, and there were always ears eager to pick up anything you said.
She did not plan to keep her word to the Captain and Company. Surprise, surprise. But she was not yet pursuing any vigorous course of betrayal. Like everyone else she was certain Croaker’s winter campaign was either a tactic not directed at the Shadowmaster at all or if pursued genuinely would result in a debacle for Taglian arms. This despite our having seized victory in the face of certain defeat on several occasions earlier.
We just might be able to make her sorry she was not a more ambitious backstabber.
What other avenues needed exploration? Goblin? He could manage without me watching over his shoulder.
Out of curiosity and because I was not yet ready to return to the world, I traced each of my in-laws back for the last few weeks. I learned nothing that would support the Old Man’s paranoia. But they were a cautious folk, just three of them out here amongst folk no Nyueng Bao had reason to trust or love. Thai Dei and Uncle Doj said very little about anything, just like they did when I was around. Mother Gota was little different, too. She just complained about different things.
Her opinion of me was not completely flattering. Hardly an hour passed when she failed to take the opportunity to damn her mother for having wished me onto the family Ky.
There were times when I was not too fond of Hong Tray for having wished all her family on me.
What should I see now? I was not ready to go back yet. Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night? They were at Charandaprash with Mogaba, collecting the scabby remnants of the Deceiver cult under the Shadowmaster’s standard. Not much mischief they could get up to there.
Lady, then. Then I would report to the Captain. I had not been tracking her but wherever she was I was likely to find somebody the Company needed to watch, like the Prahbrindrah Drah or Willow Swan.
The Prince was not in Lady’s camp. He was capable of letting duty overrule wishful thinking. He was with his own division, paying attention to business.
Charandaprash was no longer that far away. Around the lake, over a few hills and valleys, then there we would be, staring across the stony plain at the mouth of the only practical pass through the Dandha Presh.
Swan was close to Lady, of course. He looked worried whether I rolled back through the days or stayed hovering right now. Lady was having problems she would not share with him or anyone else. She looked as though she had been getting no sleep. I knew she slept very little at the best of times. For her to abandon sleep like this now, as we neared our most important confrontation in years, one that could become a defining event in the Company’s history, suggested that she had no faith in the future at all.
Running through time did give me a clue or two, though. She was indeed doing without sleep. And whenever she did take a nap she did not rest well. She seemed to be having dreams as ugly as some of mine.
For some reason crows never came close to her. But they were always around, somewhere in the distance, watching.
Lady was not interesting. She did nothing but work. She did not bother to look overwhelmingly beautiful anymore, unlike her sister. Was she, like some women do, going all dowdy because she had herself a man?
She was just fine as far as Willow Swan was concerned. Even after four years of no luck at all he was happy to tag along, using his assignment as commander of royal guards as an excuse to stay near the front.
So what was worth reporting here? That Lady had to get some rest?
Maybe. Exhaustion could impair her judgment at a critical moment.
I started to back away, drifting up and over Lake Tanji, which was pretty damned impressive even from Smoke’s point of view.
I shivered in the cold wind...
There was no wind out there with Smoke. There was no warm, no cold, no hunger, no pain. There was just being and sight.
For there in the gathering darkness above the lake’s southern shore was a dark ghost of a form with many arms and teats and wicked black lips drawn back to reveal a vampire’s grin.
You can panic out there. I did.
“You all right?” One-Eye asked as I came to the front of the wagon. It was dark out. He had turned his team loose to forage nearby, had a fire burning, and was now back on his driver’s seat polishing a spear that looked as though it had been carved from ebony, inlaid with silver highlighting a hundred grotesque figures. “You were thrashing around and yelling back there.”
“Thanks for coming to see what was wrong.”
“The old woman said you do that all the time. Didn’t seem worth worrying about.”
“Probably wasn’t. I just rolled over on your still parts.” Not true but I had a feeling he would have some around somewhere. Even during the worst of the siege of Dejagore he and Goblin had managed to produce something they pretended was beer.
He bought it long enough to give himself away. If this damned wagon stayed in one place very long something better used as food or horse fodder would turn into something else stinky but liquid and alcoholic.
“What’s the spear for?” I asked. “Haven’t seen it out for a while.” He had created it for the specific purpose of killing Shadowmasters.
“Talked to some of our brothers who’ve been with Lady’s division. Came by while you were snoring. Big Bucket and Red Rudy. Said they’ve seen a big black cat a couple three times lately. Figured I ought to be set with my best.”
He did not sound concerned but he was. That spear was a masterpiece of his art.
The cat was probably a shapeshifter named Lisa Daele Bowalk who could not shed her animal form because One-Eye had killed her teacher before she learned how. She had tried to get him before. He was confident that she would try again.
“Catch her if you can,” I told him. “I got a notion we could use her if we let Lady work on her for a while.”
“Right. That’ll be the main thing on my mind.”
“I’m going to see the Old Man.”
“Tell him I want to go home. It’s too damned cold out here for an old man like me.”
I chuckled, the way I was supposed to. I got down to the ground despite my stiffness and headed the general direction I presumed Croaker would be, based on the size of the fires.
Good thing One-Eye and I made a habit of using old languages. Thai Dei stepped out of the shadows before I had walked twenty feet. He said nothing but he was there guarding my back, wanted or not.
The journey continued. Wagons broke down. Animals came up lame. Men injured themselves. Elephants complained about the weather. So did I. It snowed a couple of times, not blankets of big soft wet flakes but the wind-whipped pellet kind that stings your skin and never amounts to anything but a few traces when it is done.
On the plus side, Mogaba’s cavalry never really got in our way. They were no problem as long as our foragers and scouts did not range too far ahead. I guess Mogaba was more interested in knowing where we were than in wasting soldiers trying to stop us before we came to his strong point.
Then one afternoon nobody received the routine order to halt and camp. The soldiers stumbled forward doggedly, cursing the bite of the wind while reminding one another that generals are seldom of sound mind and unbesmirched ancestry. They would not be generals if they were.
I went looking for the Captain.
There he was, his big crows on his shoulders. More circled him, bickering. He was smiling, the one happy fool in the army. The generals’ general. “Hey, boss. We going to keep humping it all night?”
“We’re less than ten miles from Charanky whatsit. I think it would be nice to be camped there when Mogaba gets up in the morning.”
He lived in his own reality, no doubt about that. Had to be a general. He actually believed he could play with Mogaba’s mind.
He had not seen Mogaba at Dejagore. Not enough.
I said, “We’ll be so beat he can come over and dance on our heads.”
“But he won’t. Longshadow has a ball and chain tied to his tail.”
“So he kicks ass and lies to his boss later.”
“That what you’d do?”
“Uh...” I might.
“Longshadow will be here watching him. Go get some sleep. When the sun comes up I want you perched on Mogaba’s shoulder.” Uncle Doj was only steps away, taking everything in. We were speaking Forsberger but I wondered if that was enough of a security measure.
Those crows were never far away.
What I got from the exchange was that Croaker did have a plan. Sometimes it was hard to believe that.
“I’m not tired right now.” I was hungry and thirsty, though. Any extended period spent with Smoke leaves me that way. I took advantage of the staff officers’ mess.
Messengers began to come and go. Croaker grumbled, “Guess it’s time to start telling people what they need to do.”
“There’s an original concept. After all these years.”
“Do we really need another smartass Annalist, Murgen? Get some rest.”
He began gathering senior officers for a meeting. I was not invited.
I went back to One-Eye’s wagon, where I ate some more, drank a lot of water and then went ghostwalking again.
Me and the fire chief eavesdropped on Croaker and his commanders but I should not have wasted the time. I learned very little. Croaker did all the talking, referring to a detailed map showing everyone where he wanted each unit to light in front of Mogaba. The only real surprise was that he wanted the Prahbrindrah Drah’s division stationed in the center while his own two divisions positioned themselves on the right flank excepting one specially trained combat team he wanted on the extreme left, outside Lady’s left flank.
Interesting. Our right wing just happened to face and lap the Shadowlander division Blade had been given to command. Croaker really wanted Blade.
Narrow-eyed, Lady asked, “Why did you decide to arrange the army this way? We’ve talked about this for three years...”
Croaker told her, “Because this is where I want you all.” Lady had trouble keeping her temper. In a long life she had not had to do that much.
Croaker smelled the smoke. “When I don’t explain to you nobody else finds out what I’m planning, either.” He offered some tidbit to one of his crows.
That helped. A little. But the Prahbrindrah Drah and most of the rest had no idea of the significance of Croaker’s crows.
I left Smoke, drank again, snacked, made sure the sleeper got some soup. He did not need nearly as much sustenance as I did. Maybe he was sucking on me out there, like some kind of psychic spider.
I slept. I had bad dreams that I recalled only in shards when I awakened. The Radisha was there. Soulcatcher was there. I suppose the old men in the caverns were there, too, though none of that stuck. Somewhere a bleak fortress.
I gave up trying to remember, went out with Smoke to try to see our approach as the enemy would.
Fireballs scattered colored pearls across the night. Torches speckled distant slopes with islands and snakes of light. The Shadowlander commanders watched without remark except when Blade suggested that the Captain was making his force appear more formidable by burning lots of torches.
They were not concerned. A lot of the junior officers expected Longshadow to turn them loose after they stomped us. They saw themselves heading north in early spring, with the whole summer to plunder and punish.
But a few were veterans of armies we had embarrassed in the past. Those men showed us more respect. And betrayed a more intense desire to cause us pain. They did not believe it would be easy but they did believe we would be defeated.
Mogaba himself seemed more taken with his plans for a counterinvasion than he was interested in further preparing to withstand us here.
I did not like it but I saw no real reason to believe they were overconfident.
Still, all those fireballs and torches were heartening.
That vast mass in motion out there had been inspired by the Black Company. And I had no trouble recalling when there were just seven of us, as unprepossessing a bunch of thugs as ever walked the earth. That was barely more than five years ago. Triumph or failure, this campaign would survive as a mighty drumbeat in the Annals.
I went back to my flesh and slept again. When I awakened our vanguards were already approaching the Plain of Charandaprash. Mist had formed in all the low places and gullies.
We stopped amidst a grand hubbub. I leaned out of the wagon.
The mists had become an all enveloping fog. People with torches hustled hither and yon, their torches glowing like witch lights. None came near me. All the forces had come together and now the world was very crowded.
Croaker appeared. I told him, “You look totally beat.”
“My ass is banging off my heels.” He climbed aboard, checked Smoke, settled down and closed his eyes.
“You’re here. How come? And what about your goddamned pets? They watching?”
For a moment I thought he had gone to sleep that quickly. He did not answer immediately. But: “I’m hiding out. From the birds, too. One-Eye scared them off.” About two minutes later, he added, “I don’t like it, Murgen.”
“What don’t you like?”
“Being Captain. I wish I could’ve stayed Annalist and physician. There’s less pressure.”
“You’re managing all right.”
“Not the way I hear it. I wasn’t Captain I wouldn’t have any long-term worries, either.”
“Hell. And here I thought you were having the time of your life baffling the shit out of everybody.”
“All I’ve ever wanted was to take us home. But they won’t let me.”
“It’s for sure nobody’s ever going to open any doors for us. Especially not the Radisha. What to do about us seems to be on her mind a lot lately.”
“It ought to be.” He smiled. “And I haven’t forgotten her.” He paused a moment, then said, “You’re up on your Annals. What was the bloodiest mess we ever got ourselves into?”
“Right here is my guess. Back in the beginning, four hundred years ago. But that’s only by implication in the surviving Annals.”
“History may repeat itself.” He did not sound thrilled. Not at all. He was not a bloodthirsty man.
Neither am I, despite the hatreds I obsess over here. But my scruples do have blind areas. I do want to see several thousand villains suffer for what happened to Sahra.
Croaker asked, “Do you know of any way to authenticate the lost Annals you took back from Soulcatcher?”
“What?” What a horrible question. It never occurred to me before. “You saying you think they might not be real?”
“I couldn’t read them but I could see that they weren’t originals. They were copies.”
“They might not have told the true story?”
“Smoke believed every word in the ones he had. And oral history supports his view of the Company as the terror of the ages, though there aren’t any specifics. But I do have to wonder because there just aren’t any contemporary accounts from independent observers.”
“Something happened. Even if these books we have now are fabrications. What’re you thinking?”
For a moment Croaker seemed tired of fighting. “Murgen, there’s something going on that’s more than you and me and Lady, the Taglians and the Shadowmasters and all that. Strange things are happening and they don’t add up any other way. I started to wonder when you kept falling into the past.”
“I think Soulcatcher had something to do with that.”
“She may well have. She’s got her fingers in everywhere else. But I don’t think she’s all of it. I think we’re all—even Soulcatcher—being manipulated. And I’m even beginning to think that it’s been going on for ages. That if we had the true firsts of the missing Annals and could read them we might see ourselves and what’s happening in a whole different way.”
“Are you talking about the thing Lady goes on about in her book? Kina? Because I’ve seen her myself, a couple of times, when I was out walking the ghost. Or what I think was her based on myth and what Lady wrote.”
“Kina. Yes. Or something that wants us to think it’s Kina.”
“Wouldn’t that be the same thing, as far as we’re concerned?”
“Uhm. I think she’s having those dreams again.”
I thought so myself. “Looked like that to me, too. She’s getting pretty haggard.”
“I thought a lot about this during the trip down here. Not much to do but think when you’re riding all day. My guess is, things have started going too fast for Kina. This is a critter that’s used to shaping long, slow shadow plays, manipulations that can take decades to unfold. Maybe even generations in our case. Her big scheme might have begun way back before our fore-brethren headed north. But now we’re coming home to roost and everything is happening too fast for her. The more she tries to guide events the more hamhanded she gets.”
“Like what she did to Smoke.”
“I really figured that was something Soulcatcher did.” Although there had been no evidence to pin that on her, either.
“I suppose that’s possible, too. It’s even possible they were both after him and they got in each other’s way.”
I recalled what I could of the incident from Lady’s book. I decided to stick with my Soulcatcher theory. Deceiver mythology did not credit Kina with that much ability to reach into the mundane world. The whole point of the cult was to bring on a time of such dramatic horror that the walls preventing Kina from touching our world could be ripped down from our side.
I explained that.
Croaker just shrugged. “Listen to this. I’m almost certain there wasn’t supposed to be any Black Company left after Dejagore. Except for Lady. She was the only one who was supposed to survive. And her number was supposed to be up when the Stranglers took our baby.”
I considered that. “If that guy Ram hadn’t fallen for Lady...”
“That would’ve been the end of everything. Kina would’ve had her Daughter of Night over on this side and the Year of the Skulls beginning to unfold without anyone to interfere.”
I looked interested. That was easy. I was. I wanted him to keep going. Before he finished I might actually have some idea why he did everything he did.
He said, “The wild cards messed up Kina’s hand.”
“Wild cards? You mean Soulcatcher?”
“She’s the biggest. But there’s Howler and there was Shifter and there’s still Shifter’s apprentice out there somewhere. All of them not part of the plan.”
It was a hypothesis. It was well beyond any thinking I had done. Or in a different direction.
“You be careful, Murgen. Stay in close touch with your feelings. Don’t let the ghostwalking seduce you. This thing manipulates us through our emotions.”
“Why should I worry? I just write stuff down.”
His response was cryptic. “The standardbearer could be more important than the Daughter of Night before this is all over.”
He changed the subject. “You looked for the forvalaka lately?” He meant the shapeshifter trapped in animal form, the apprentice he had mentioned a moment ago.
I thought about it, told him, “I’ve looked a few times but haven’t seen it since I doubled back on the massacre at Vehdna-Bota.”
“I see. No hurry but when you get a chance, find out where she is now. We couldn’t be so lucky that she’s gotten herself killed.”
“Oh, she hasn’t. One-Eye says she’s right out there in the wilds, following us. We were talking about her the other night. He’s convinced her only reason for living is to get even with him for killing Shifter before he taught her how to change back.”
Croaker chuckled. “Yeah. Poor old boy. One of these days he’s going to discover that he isn’t the center of the universe. May all our surprises be pleasant ones. And all of Mogaba’s surprises real gut-rippers.” He chuckled again, wickedly. As he climbed down from the wagon he said, “Almost showtime.”
He did see warfare more in terms of showmanship than in those of deadly games.
Once again I fluttered around Mogaba’s head. Me, Murgen, angel of espionage.
Howler and Longshadow had arrived soon after dawn. They believed it would take both their concerted efforts to keep Lady from ripping Mogaba a new poop chute. Lady’s powers seemed to swell as she moved farther south.
An idea hit like religious epiphany. I knew the fear that haunted the Captain. He suspected that Lady had regained her powers by making a pact with Kina.
I have suspected that myself, off and on.
The way sorcery works, the way I understood it, her loss of powers during the battle at the Barrowland should have been irreversible. It had to do with some unfathomable mystical gobbledegook about true names. Gunni mythology contained numerous stories about how gods and demons and devils went around hiding their true names in rocks or trees or grains of sand on the beach so their enemies would not be able to glom onto them and gain a hold. The whole business made no sense but that did not keep it from working.
Lady’s true name had been named during the final showdown with her husband. She survived but, according to the mystical rules, was now an ordinary mortal. With looks to kill for. What made her interesting to people in her former trade was that she was a living storehouse of wicked lore. She had not lost any of her knowledge, only the ability to employ it.
I was surprised that she had not been a bigger target than she had so far.
Her name had no power over her anymore. Being powerless herself, apparently, she could not take advantage of those true names she knew. Otherwise she would have dealt with the Howler and her sister a long time ago. And she would not give those names away even to One-Eye and Goblin. She would die first.
It takes a strange sort to become a wizard or sorceress.
She had her own agenda still, that was certain. One-Eye or Goblin were not much but some things were like dropping a rock down a well.
From conversations overheard I knew Longshadow would part with three or four thumbs to get hold of what Lady knew.
Funny. Whenever he sent Howler to capture her the scheme machine never quite clicked. You would almost think Howler did not want his senior partner to become any more senior.
Someday I will have to get Lady to explain the whole true names thing in a way that even a dummy like me can understand. Maybe I can get her to explain the whole business of sorcery so that those of us who study these Annals will have at least a vague idea of what is going on.
Knowing will not keep us from crapping our small clothes when we run into sorcery but, still, it would be nice to have a notion what is behind all the deadly lights.
The Shadowlander soldiers were all in place. They gnawed field rations sleepily, hard at work at what soldiers do most. While we all waited I hung around those who spoke languages I could understand. The philosophers among them examined the intellects and characters of generals who put their troops into formation and made them stand ready when nothing was going to happen. Nothing. The damned Tals were too damned tired to do anything. They had spent the whole damned night on the move.
“Tal” was a sort of pun. Though short for “Taglian” it also meant “turd” in the Sangel dialects common south of the Dandha Presh.
I felt like I had soldiered with those guys. They spoke my language.
Mogaba had built himself a giant observation tower a safe distance behind the lines. It was wooden. I thought he was going to find it uncomfortable pretty soon. Longshadow and Howler had joined him up there. The atmosphere was not festive but it was far from grim. Nobody was worried about us.
Longshadow threatened to become cheerful. This battle was the culmination of all his planning. When it was over nothing could stop him from making himself master of the world. Except maybe a few allies who did not quite share his ambitions.
I was hurt. A guy likes to be taken seriously. Mogaba had these people, from top to bottom, believing they were invincible.
In the soldiering business you are often what you think you are.
Confidence generates victory.
Howler did not scream once while I watched. Longshadow did not throw one tantrum.
Much as they fussed about Lady you would think they would be more tense.
The rising sun began burning off the mist except around our camp. The wind was a feeble breeze coming from Lady’s flank. Fires smoldered there, keeping the camp obscured. The Shadowlanders could see only the camp followers who had been strong armed into feeding the fires and four wooden towers now rising above the smoke and mist. They were your basic siege towers, being assembled from precut parts brought up from barges on the Naghir River only with a lot of effort and plenty of good old fashioned cussing.
I did not understand. What was the point out here? We were not going to be clambering over any castle walls.
Knowing Croaker, the project was under way just to get Mogaba wondering why.
I dove Smoke into the smoke. The activity inside was not what I expected. The soldiers were asleep. Those who were up and about were mostly camp followers. They fed the fires, assembled the towers, smoothed the ground in paths leading toward Mogaba’s lines, cursed the moment Croaker was born. They had not followed the army so they could do its work.
The soldiers who drove them to their tasks were not kind. The Old Man was clever enough to have had the work crews assembled according to religion, then managed by soldiers who did not cherish their beliefs.
Some details of Croaker’s plan had begun trickling down through the ranks but there was no way anyone could put the pieces together into a whole. He would not let the whole picture get out where a genius could puzzle it out from its fragments.
Now the challenge was to keep the only man who knew what it was alive until... Ah, me, Murgen. Where is your Black Company confidence?
It never existed except as show.
Ha. Here was Willow Swan, tall, blond and beautiful, trying harder than I to understand. An intuition might win him points with Lady. But he was grumbling in confusion to his companions.
I found Lady not far away. She was not worried about what was going on. She was focused on business. She had taken station atop a knoll that raised her above the smoke. She stared up the pass, ready if the other side tried something.
I took Smoke back to One-Eye’s wagon. Time for breakfast.
“About goddamned time, Kid!” One-Eye complained. “You’ve got to start taking shorter trips. You’re gonna end up getting lost out there.”
Everybody kept telling me that. It did not seem to be happening, though, so my share of those fears were fading away. I asked, “Anything interesting happening?”
“There’s a war on. Come on. Get out of the way. I need the old fart so I can do my part. Go get some exercise. Eat something. Make him some soup so you can feed him when I’m done.”
“You feed him when you’re done, bat-breath. You’re the man with the job.”
“You got a real attitude problem, Kid.”
“We about to try something?”
“No. We hiked five hundred goddamn miles in the middle of goddamn winter because they say the brush down here is so goddamn great for cookouts.”
“Everybody acts like they’re drugged.”
“Could be on account of they’re drugged. I don’t know. Just my opinion. I could be wrong. Get out of my way. I got work to do.”
The smoke was awful. And it got worse nearer the front of the army. Scant yards made a huge difference. After my first foray in that direction I decided curiosity could wait. I hung around the wagon. I ate and ate and ate. I used up most of One-Eye’s water. Served him right, the way he abused me.
I thought about Sahra. I knew I would be thinking of her a lot now. Danger has a way of making you dwell on the things most important to you.
The proximity of Narayan Singh haunted me, too. The living saint of the Deceivers was less than a mile away, tending his own cookfire while the Daughter of Night looked on dreamily, well bundled against the morning chill and damp.
I started. Damn! That little reverie was almost real.
I got restless waiting to get back to Smoke. I wanted to see if Singh was making breakfast. I needed to get away from all these thoughts about Sarie.
When would the scars form around the pain? When would it stop hurting so much that I had to run away?
I stared into the fire and tried to banish the thoughts. That was like picking at a scab. The harder I tried to think about something else the more I focused on Sarie. Eventually the fire filled my entire horizon and I seemed to see my wife on the other side, rumpled and beautiful and somewhat pallid as she went about the mundane business of cooking rice. It was like I was looking back through time to a moment I had lived before.
I made a noise like a dog strangling and jumped to my feet. Not again! I was over those falls into the past... wasn’t I?
One-Eye clambered down from the wagon. “All done, Kid. You can have him if you need him but you really ought to give it a break. Ain’t nothing going to happen for a while, anyway.”
“What’re we burning in these fires? I’m having visions or something here.”
One-Eye sucked in a couple gallons of air, held his breath a while, then blew it out, shook his head, disappointed. “You’re imagining things.”
“I never did.”
I never did. That was worth thinking about. I glanced around to see who was listening. Mother Gota was at the family cookfire but her Forsberger was not good enough to give her a clue.
She had appointed herself full-time family cook. Which meant that, even with the demands made by my travels with Smoke, I was in no danger of getting fat. She still lugged her personal arsenal. She acted like she knew how to use it those rare times she troubled to practice with Thai Dei and Uncle Doj. She did not talk to me much anymore. I was not the reason she was here. I was an inconvenience and an embarrassment.
She knew none of this would have happened if love and Hong Tray had not gotten in the way of common sense and ancient custom.
I was just as happy she stayed out of my way. I had my own feelings to tame. Among them was the conviction that life might have been much better for me had Sarie’s mother never come to stay with us. Sahra might even be alive still. Though there was no way I could work that out so that it fit any logic.
Much as Smoke called I decided to endure the pain. I had to get used to it sometime. So why not try walking around the camp again? I could stay away from the worst smoke.
Thai Dei materialized almost as soon as I started moving. “Your sling and splints are gone,” I said. “Are you back on the job?” He nodded.
“Sure it isn’t a little soon for that? You could break that arm again if you don’t give it time enough to heal.”
Thai Dei shrugged. He was tired of being a cripple. That was that. Tough as he was, he was probably right.
“What happened to Uncle Doj?” I had not seen the old boy for a while. If Thai Dei was back Doj might give in to an impulse to go after revenge on his own. His Path of the Sword thinking would find that perfectly reasonable. Thai Dei shrugged.
He was lucky he did not have to talk for a living. There would be even less of him than there is now.
“Help me out here, brother. I’m going to get real upset if that old man gets himself killed.” Uncle Doj was not ancient. He had maybe ten years on the Old Man and was more spry than Croaker.
“He would not do that.”
“Glad to hear it. Trouble is, anybody can. While we’re at it, remind him to try not being so weird in front of people who don’t know us. The Captain didn’t survive Dejagore with us.”
Thai Dei was positively loquacious all of a sudden. “He lived his own hell.” Which was true but not a point I would expect Nyueng Bao to note.
“He sure did. And it twisted him. Same as Dejagore twisted us. He doesn’t trust anybody anymore. That’s a lonely way to be but he just can’t help it. And he especially don’t trust people whose beliefs and business and motives are completely opaque to him.”
“You have to admit that Uncle Doj is odd even by Nyueng Bao standards.”
Thai Dei grunted, conceding the point privately.
“He makes the Captain very nervous.” And the Captain was a very powerful man.
“I hope so.” Ordinarily even Doj has to pry words out of Thai Dei so I felt rewarded. He remained talkative. I learned a good deal about his childhood with Sahra, which was pretty unremarkable. He believed there was a curse on their family. His father had died when he and Sahra were children. His wife My had drowned when their son To Tan was only a few months old, early in the pilgrimage that had brought the Nyueng Bao into Dejagore just in time for the siege. Sahra had married Sam Danh Qu, who had put her through several years of hell before he died of that fever in the early days of the siege. Then the children had all died, Sahra’s under the swords of Mogaba’s men in Dejagore, To Tan during the Strangler raid that had ended with my wife dead and Thai Dei’s arm broken.
Evidently nobody in this family ever died of old age. This dying family. Mother Gota would bear no more children. Thai Dei had the capacity to become a father again but I did not expect that to happen. I expected Thai Dei to get killed avenging his sister and son.
Thai Dei stopped being communicative when To Tan’s name came up.
The army lined up so: Lady’s division to the left, the Prince’s in the center, the Captain’s two to the right, stacked one behind the other. All our cavalry assembled in the gap between the front and trailing divisions.
Why? The reserve division belongs behind the center. That has been customary since the dawn of time.
And why did Croaker station all his specially trained units behind or beyond Lady’s division?
Either the Old Man thought he could dive Mogaba berserk trying to winkle out the answers or he was letting his hatred for Blade and his paranoia define his tactics.
And why were the camp followers, voluntarily or otherwise, being gathered together right on the front line? Croaker hated camp followers. That he had not run them off weeks ago was a wonder to all who knew him.
I could not find Uncle Doj. Still.
I felt it begin before any growl of drum or snarl of trumpet. I ran for the wagon, leaping rocks and fires in the mist.
I had Smoke take me up where Mogaba watched from his high tower, sensed uncertainty immediately. He knew Croaker. He knew that half what the Old Man did would be done to mess with his mind. But which half?
The knowing itself would cause a hesitation at every point of decision.
I loathed Mogaba the traitor but admired Mogaba the man. He was tall, handsome, intelligent. Just like me. But he was the perfect warrior, too.
He had no company but couriers and the two big wazoos. And they were doing a great imitation of two guys sleeping. Their strategy was to wait for Lady to make a move so one could grab her while the other one blindsided her.
Mogaba’s platform provided a less than perfect view though probably the best attainable. A portion of his left flank was masked by a jumble of boulders while to his right a steep knee of stone concealed his flank there along with a portion of the Taglian left wing.
I took Smoke up amongst the crows for a vulture’s eye view. The smoke was thinning out. People were stumbling uphill, unable to make an orderly advance over the rocky ground.
Now I understood why the troops had been issued calthrops.
Calthrops are like large kids’ jacks, only the tips are sharp and sometimes poisoned. The calthrop is a handy tool if you have to run for it, particularly if the guys after you are going to be on horseback. You scatter calthrops where horses have to follow narrow paths and you have yourself a guaranteed head start or even grounds for a nasty ambush.
Aha! I spied the missing complimentary in-law.
Uncle Doj was dressed up in his best outfit, his holy fencing duds, like he maybe did not want us going to a whole lot of trouble when we laid him out. Hell. I would have to check with Thai Dei on Nyueng Bao funeral customs. A lot of Nyueng Bao had died around me but I never took part in what went on later.
I still resented being left out when they took care of To Tan and Sahra without me.
Uncle Doj strutted uphill till he was just fifty feet from the first line of Shadowlanders. He stopped and bellowed a challenge to Narayan Singh.
Guess who did not come out to fight? Nobody even answered. Nobody even bothered to relay the message to the Deceiver camp.
Uncle Doj began issuing a series of formal insults, belittling the Deceivers and all their allies. Trouble was, they were formal insults from a stylized school of challenge and response. He did not know how to make his presentation in a manner accessible to people who did not speak Nyueng Bao.
Poor Uncle. Forty years of intense preparation brought him to the ultimate moment and all those guys over there saw was a crazy old man.
Doj began to get it.
He began to get angry for real. He started yelling his challenges in Taglian. A few Shadowlanders understood him. His message soon reached the Deceivers. It was not well received.
I found the show as amusing as anything could be out there.
None of this was part of the Captain’s plan.
Uncle kept hollering.
Over in the Deceiver camp the miniature messiah of the Stranglers told his cronies, “We will not respond. We will wait. Darkness is our time. And darkness always comes.” After a pause he asked, “Who is that man?”
A wide, creepy looking guy told him, “He was in Dejagore. One of the Nyueng Bao pilgrims.” The man speaking was named Sindhu. He had come into Dejagore during the siege to spy for Lady and for the Deceivers. He was a real villain. I had been sure he was dead.
The Sahras die but the Sindhus and Narayan Singhs go on. Which is why I cannot be a religious man. Unless the Gunni are right and there is a wheel of life and eventually everybody gets what they deserve.
Sindhu continued, “He was a priest of some kind and their Speaker. A member of his family eventually wed the standardbearer of the Black Company.”
“It becomes clear. The Goddess is scribbling one of her subtle death plays.” He glanced at the Daughter of Night. The kid sat so still it was spooky. Spookier than usual. No four-year-old could do that.
Narayan Singh seemed vaguely troubled. His goddess enjoyed the occasional death joke at the expense of her most devout followers. He did not want to become one of her pranks.
“Darkness is our time,” he said again. “Darkness always comes.”
Darkness always comes. Sounded like Kina’s motto. I took another look at Lady and Croaker’s brat. She bothered me bad. She was spookier every time I looked. If it had not been so hard to care out there I could have cried for Lady and the Old Man.
Actually, I almost could. Maybe I was becoming capable of feeling while I worked.
I drifted away, found that Mogaba was taking stronger exception to Uncle’s antics than was Singh. But he remembered Uncle Doj from the bad old days. “I want that man silenced,” he said. “The soldiers are watching him instead of their enemies.”
When he drew no response from the Deceivers, Uncle Doj began insulting the Shadowlanders and their masters. A javelin streaked his way. In a motion too swift to follow he drew Ash Wand and brushed the missile aside. “Cowards!” he called. “Renegades! Are any of you Nar men enough to come out?” He exposed his back contemptuously, headed for friendly lines before a missile storm could devour him. A masterful move, it did not look like a withdrawal at all.
All hell broke loose. Horns shrieked. Drums grumbled. A stumbling, shambling, inept, mean-spirited and poorly armed rabble headed uphill wailing, sixty thousand hungry and hard up camp followers attacking the servants of shadow. Our soldiers drove them at swordspoint.
I was stunned. I was awed. The Captain had his hard moments but I never figured him for hard enough to let camp followers accumulate and tag along so he could use them as a human avalanche. But on reflection, yes, for weeks he had been warning the soldiers not to let anyone they cared for join the march. Those who discussed it at all thought it meant that the Old Man did not expect to be successful.
Those people were going to get slaughtered. But they would hurt some Shadowlanders and grind the rest down, which would work to our advantage.
The soldiers were merciless. They whipped the camp followers into a terrified frenzy. When they hit Mogaba’s center and right they actually penetrated the Shadowlander front rank.
Blade’s division remained untouched.
While everyone was concentrating on our attack, Croaker’s special forces left Lady’s shadow and hastened into the wastes flanking the pass. Mogaba had sentries concealed in amongst those rocks, of course. Fighting broke out immediately.
Our elephants moved forward behind the troops pushing the camp followers. The Shadowlanders were too busy to bother them. The elephants used huge mallets to drive big iron spikes into the earth.
Came a shrill of brassy Shadowlander trumpets. For no reason I could discern Blade’s division suddenly moved out, left oblique, downhill, at an angle that would take it around our right flank. I marvelled at how well his men maintained formation crossing that rough ground.
Now I got to witness one of Longshadow’s epic rages. “You have gone too far this time!” he thundered at Mogaba, once he controlled himself enough to manage a coherent sentence. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, making moves like that without consulting me? At least explain your thinking!” While he yelled he stamped around the rough platform, shaking, clawing at his mask till I thought he might show the world the face he kept hidden except when he was alone.
“I have no idea what he’s doing.” Mogaba ignored the Shadowmaster’s rage. He leaned on the platform rail, stared at Blade’s division and looked as confused as ever I had seen. “Be quiet.”
Howler punctuated the racket with a series of shrieks.
Longshadow became incoherent again.
Taglian trumpets blared. Shadar cavalrymen galloped out of the gap between the Old Man’s two divisions and rushed into that between Blade’s division and the rest of the Shadowlander army. Their movement was a lot less impressive than Blade’s. They did not even pretend to maintain formation once they were moving.
Blade ignored them. He continued his march.
Mogaba became as excited as ever I have seen him. He did not have a clue what Blade was up to.
Longshadow and Howler nearly came to blows.
What the hell was going on?
Sudden drums announced the advance of Croaker’s lead division. It headed straight into the space vacated by Blade’s force. The cavalry drifted onward, screening the division’s outside flank. Then the reserve division faced right and began to follow Blade. And I gawked.
Events were unfolding as though carefully choreographed yet nobody knew what was going on. Confusion was universal. In some more remote areas, like Lady’s command post, people had no idea at all.
The Captain might have had some idea but he seemed to be running in three directions at once, trying to obtain control, keep control, keep in touch. He was unable to keep a grasp on the bigger picture.
I could give him no help. By the time I could return to flesh, get myself moving, find him at the front a mile from One-Eye’s wagon, the whole situation would have changed radically.
On our left and in our center our soldiers continued to drive the camp followers ahead of them. That was turning into a horror show of proportions sure to be recalled for generations.
Croaker’s lead division engaged the Shadowlanders directly, attempting to secure the position Blade had abandoned. Mogaba’s reserves rushed in. They fought very well. They pushed Croaker back. Barely. I got the feeling the Old Man was not ready to make a total effort to gain the position.
One company of Shadar, towering over their enemies, did get within bowshot of the Strangler camp. For several minutes a handful of archers laid down a desultory barrage that did no apparent damage.
At the same time Howler managed to get through to Longshadow. “We do not have the luxury of spending time squabbling among ourselves! The woman could strike any moment. If you’re not paying attention...”
Several strong sallies in the same vein led the Shadowmaster to understand that indulging in a fit left him vulnerable to sorcerous attack. And his sidekick could not protect him all the time. He was having a rash of his own screaming fits.
Still shaking, unable to articulate clearly, Longshadow concentrated his attention on Lady.
Lady was just standing there, waiting.
Mogaba tried to get Longshadow’s attention. The Shadowmaster remained focused on Lady. Mogaba persisted. He got Longshadow to turn around only after it looked like the crisis had passed. The terror applied by our troops no longer was sufficient to keep the camp followers moving uphill. The Captain’s division had withdrawn to its jump-off position. Blade’s force had halted two miles west of the battlefield. It was surrounded by our cavalry and the reserve division. The Shadowlanders in the unit were as baffled as everyone else. But they were good soldiers. They carried out their orders.
Mogaba told Longshadow, “We have been deceived, not in any way we anticipated. With one clever stroke Croaker has decimated us. It is now unlikely that I can hold this ground if you won’t modify your general orders.”
Longshadow grunted an angry interrogative.
Mogaba told him, “Our best hope now is to attack while the Taglians are disorganized and scattered, before our own soldiers realize how suddenly desperate our situation has become.”
Longshadow did not see it that way. “Once again you forget that your mission is to carry out my wishes, not to question them. Why must you be so negative?” He stared at Blade’s force, only part of which was visible from where he stood. Clearly he was troubled by negative thoughts of his own. “You repelled their attack easily.”
Mogaba restrained his anger with difficulty. I wished someone, anyone, had an idea of Longshadow’s antecedents. Sometimes the man was as naive as he was powerful.
Mogaba threw an arm up as though indicating Blade. “We were taken in. An entire legion has just been lost because you were so eager to enlist another ranking defector.”
Dumb old me, I did not understand what he was saying. I had not made the intuitive leap.
Longshadow did not yet understand that there was a leap to be made. He saw only a triumph in the opening bout of the contest. “How many have we killed? See! The dead fell in windrows. They lie there in veritable hills. Count them in their thousands. These crows will feast for an age to come.”
But the man inside was troubled. He continued to stare toward Blade’s force.
Mogaba barked, “Maybe one out of a hundred of those dead was a soldier. Those were all camp followers, the thieves and whores and hungry mouths that become parasitic on any army that permits it. They were useless tagalong scum. Croaker used them to keep us occupied while he stole a quarter of our strength and all of our hope. His veterans now outnumber ours significantly. And most of them are fresh.” He indicated the heights to his right, where Croaker’s special forces continued to gain ground. “They’ll soon take the high ground. They came prepared to take it.”
“And you aren’t prepared to defend it?”
“I anticipated Croaker’s effort. Only a fool would ignore those heights. But I didn’t anticipate the firebombs he’s using.”
Those were the finest product of One-Eye’s weapons shops back in Taglios, transported here at great cost in treasure and labor, which now looked worthwhile. It was hard to hold your ground in the face of those bombs.
The Captain and his staff were headed for Blade’s division. Something was up. I streaked that way.
Blade came outside the wall of his soldiers, faced the Captain across a hundred yards of rocky ground. Our men were posted outside bowshot, relaxed but alert, awaiting developments. They were only slightly less baffled than the traitor’s soldiers, who were drawn up as if for review now, not for combat.
Blade and Croaker met midway between. They exchanged a few words. Silly me, I expected the Old Man to settle the feud he had been prosecuting so vigorously for so long. Instead, he threw his arms around Blade and started laughing.
It had been a long time for the Captain. His laughter had a definite mad edge.
They started jumping up and down, holding on to one another.
Then Blade spun away. He bellowed at his soldiers, “Stack your weapons and surrender. Or you’ll be exterminated.”
I was so dense that only now, as Blade’s soldiers began obeying orders, as they had been taught, did I recognize the swindle.
Blade’s defection had been staged. Croaker’s years-long mad pursuit of him had been cosmetic except where he had used Blade to rid himself of obnoxious religious fanatics.
Nothing like having your enemies do your dirty work for you.
More, Blade had worked hard to make the Shadowmaster unpopular with his subjects. Whole territories had surrendered without even token resistance.
And now Blade had delivered a quarter of the Shadowmaster’s finest troops.
Nowhere in the Annals was there a con to match this con. And this one Croaker created for himself. He would laugh up his sleeve for a long time, knowing Mogaba could not have imagined him capable of such an unprecedented move. Mogaba did not think Croaker capable of taking a deep breath without consulting the Annals.
I left Smoke. Nobody was anywhere near the wagon except Mother Gota and Thai Dei. I joined them. They said nothing. I ate without speaking myself, drank a lot of water, climbed back into the wagon and took a long nap. I dreamed. The dreams were not pleasant. Soulcatcher was there and she seemed to be having a wonderful time. Messing with us, no doubt, because that is where she found her fun.
I woke up and ate again, barely aware that I was devouring some of Mother Gota’s worst cuisine. I swilled water as though this was my first chance in weeks. I was vaguely aware that Thai Dei seemed troubled whenever he looked at me. I tried to figure that out but I could not concentrate.
It was late. The camp itself was quiet. The soldiers were still forward. Night sentries prowled watchfully, warned that there were Stranglers in the enemy camp. They gossiped softly as they paused to warm their hands by the fires. Farther back, some survivors from among the camp followers gathered their pitiful belongings and stole away before they got rounded up and herded forward again.
Vicious fighting continued on the heights. Mogaba intended to contest every foot of ground.
Not all the camp followers had been able to get away. Fires on Lady’s flank once again began to mask our camp with smoke. Did the Captain have some new devilment in mind?
I asked him when he turned up a while later. “I hope they think so up there,” he said. He could not stop grinning. “For the rest of his life I want Mogaba looking over his shoulder, jumping at shadows, thinking there’s another trap about to open under his feet. Maybe there’ll be one sometime.” He laughed again.
All the senior officers began gathering at a fire laid like a Gunni festival bonfire. Politically neutral priests of all faiths performed rites of thanksgiving. Even Lady came in, accompanied by her officers and admirers. She looked like a demigoddess, more real than any Taglian deity but the dreaded Kina. In the modern era only Kina seemed interested in mundane affairs.
But she had a personal interest.
Hard to tell who among the crowd was most boggled. Blade settled beside the Old Man. He could not stop grinning. He could not stop babbling at his old buddy Swan. Pity Cordy Mather was back home with the Woman. He would have gotten a kick out of this, too.
I had not seen Blade for years. Back then he had been a taciturn cynic. Nothing like this. And One-Eye had not had time to get a still running yet.
Blade bellowed at Croaker. Croaker bellowed right back. Swan told me, “Don’t mind them two. They haven’t gotten over the hand-holding stage yet.”
“I guess there must have been a lot of strain while the con was running.”
The Old Man heard Swan but ignored him. “Tomorrow it’s good old-fashioned hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle. The last thing Mogaba will expect from me. Prince, you get first go. Have your men show us how good they are.”
I took a long drink of water, wishing One-Eye had managed to get something made for tonight. But that would not have gone over. None of the Taglian religions tolerated beer, nor did Lady or the Prince, who did not want drunken soldiers screwing things up. But what they did not see they could not condemn. So I might just suggest to One-Eye that he get a move on.
I asked, “You’re actually going to tell us what’s going on?”
A lax humor entered the Captain’s eyes. “Nope.” He leaned close, whispered, “Don’t let this get out. I don’t want anybody easing up. But they’re not sending shadows out to spy.” He pointed as a fireball headed up the pass. We had not seen much of Lady’s big magic here yet.
“They’re saving them.” He grinned again. This grin took in everyone around us. He spoke to the assembly. “I think you all know what you’re expected to do next. Get some rest.”
How did everybody know what they were expected to do next? The little he had told anyone had been extremely vague.
Croaker looked at Lady. She seemed at the point of collapse. This was tiring work but her exhaustion went beyond what you would expect.
Some hard guy, my Captain. Sometimes his feelings were obvious. He hurt for the woman he loved. “Swan. Hang around. I want to talk to you.”
I was politely invited to move my unwelcome ass along and get some rest of my own.
I wanted to sleep. I was tired despite having done so little that was physical. But when I retired to One-Eye’s wagon I lay there tossing and turning. Outside Mother Gota was engaged in an endless litany of complaint. Evidently I was only a minor character in her cast of troubles. Uncle Doj was a star. Hong Tray was a star. Sahra was a star for having gone along with Hong Tray. Or for having gotten Hong Tray on her side. Witches, both of them. Thai Dei did not say much more than usual. He might have wanted to enter a fact or two but his mother never gave him the chance.
Same old same old where Mother Gota was concerned. Most of the time I did not hear her anymore. I wondered if she could be insulted into silence.
She did get me thinking about the woman I loved.
I turned and tossed and wrestled with the pain. I thought it might be getting a little less potent. And, of course, I had to worry about that. Was it right? Was it a betrayal of Sarie?
I reminded me that I am a grown man used to a hard life and should not be getting caught up in this sort of obsessing, however great a treasure Sahra had been.
I did drift off into that state where you are not entirely asleep but you are not awake, either. Where you can rewrite your dreams as you go along.
Suddenly I was back in the past, whipped through time by a gust of laughter and a mocking voice that asked me where I had been. I was not expecting this after all this time but it did not take me off guard, either. I was experienced at this sort of thing now.
Not surprised, I was not lost or disoriented. I had walked with the ghost enough to have developed some resilience. I tried to take hold just as I would have had I been out with Smoke.
The aura of amusement surrounding me gave way to startlement. I did a sort of transdimensional fast spin and right there caught a glimpse of the prime suspect, Soulcatcher, kneeling over some array of sorcerous objects near a fire somewhere in the gorsy approaches to Charandaprash. My turn to be amused. Even if I was not in control I now knew who was manipulating me.
Now, how could I put another move on her and find out why?
The laughter of crows enveloped me. Like it did not matter if I knew who was doing what.
That sounded like Soulcatcher, the way she was described in Croaker’s Annals. A force for chaos, seldom giving one rat’s ass what happened as long as something did.
I tried to recall where those Annals were right now. Another look at Soulcatcher might be worthwhile. Or maybe even a long heart-to-heart with the Old Man. He knew Soulcatcher better than anyone alive, her sister included. I do not believe Lady had a clue about her sister’s thinking anymore. Maybe she did not care.
Maybe I was seeing things that were not there. What did I know about what Lady was thinking, really? I had not exchanged a hundred words with her in the past three years. Before that our exchanges were limited to information destined for the Annals.
The laughter of crows became the laughter of Soulcatcher. A voice said, “I do not think I want to play today after all.”
A great invisible hand grabbed me and threw me into a windy darkness. I spun like a thrown walnut even though I was nothing but a dream.
I tried controlling it same as I would have had I been walking with the ghost. Once again I was able to take a measure of control. The sensation of spinning went away. As it faded a feeling of place and time returned, along with an ability to see. It was not good seeing. It was fuzzing and short range, like Hagop talked about his vision getting as he got older. But I was in a jungle. Was it familiar? It was a jungle. I have seen a few and they are all pretty much the same if you cannot see more than twenty feet clearly. Bugs out the wazoo. Muted, the screeching of a thousand birds. A couple of those were inside my circle of vision. I noted that they seemed to see me just fine. I was the reason for all the excitement.
I rotated quickly. Jungle for sure. But not short on water. A nasty black pool lay only inches from where my heels would have rested had I had any heels.
Monkeys scampered along a branch overhead, rattled by the screeching of the birds but, apparently, unable to see me. At least not at that range. One came swinging past a foot from my point of view. She saw me. She was so startled she lost her grip, shrieked in surprise, fell into the black pool, where she started hollering in terror.
The crocodile almost got her. Almost. She got out of the water an instant before the jaws snapped. Nothing like some big teeth moving fast to motivate you.
The crocodile’s effort, however, betrayed it to the crocodile hunters who materialized an instant later, casting barbed spears.
Life is cruel.
Those crocodile hunters were unusually nervous. They wondered why the birds were going crazy. They wondered why the monkeys had gone berserk, why one had fallen into the black pool. Understanding them was no problem. They spoke Nyueng Bao as though it was their native tongue. Which it was.
I was somewhere in the delta.
Faintly, faintly, behind the raucous birds I could sense the amusement of crows.
I had no sense of direction.
There was no Smoke to take me home.
I was not just dreaming. I had control but did not know what to do with it... Up. Up was always good with Smoke. The higher you went the more the earth looked like an incredibly detailed map. Then you needed only find a landmark you knew. I went up.
I was in the nastiest, most untamed part of the delta. The whole world was black water, bugs and densely packed trees. That was very nearly my idea of hell.
I had to go way up above where the buzzards soar to see anything else. In the meantime psychic chills twisted the imaginary me; fear gnawed hard and deep. Rising with me was a momentary certainty that I would never find any landmark.
The sun was a landmark. If you had eyes to see it.
I could not see much very well. Not even the birds that shied away.
So I could not find a landmark the logical way. Well, there was a different green over that way.
The different green proved to be empty rice paddies. I zigged this way, zagged that, found a village, found the path that ran out of the village and followed it. I moved at wild speeds. Still, I knew, it was going to take me a long time to get back to where I started.
I heard the voices mocking crows.
I saw a village that looked familiar.
Some would say all Nyueng Bao hamlets look alike. They do, pretty much, from what I have seen. But their temples vary radically according to the wealth and status and age of the town. I had seen this temple before, weeks ago when I was searching for Goblin. I had, in fact, glimpsed a girl who looked so much like Sahra that I wanted to cry when I left Smoke’s world.
I paused there, drifted around, watched the villagers about their early morning business. Everything seemed typical of a Nyueng Bao hamlet, from all I had heard. Even though it was the middle of winter there was work to do. People were getting set to do it.
It was a very prosperous town. Very old, too, probably. The temple was large and looked like it had been there for ages. A pair of mighty two-headed elephants formed pillars to either side of a door as tall as three Nyueng Bao men. The two-headed elephant represented the god of luck among the Gunni. I recall One-Eye saying luck took that form because it was powerful and two-faced.
Oh. That must be the girl I had seen before. The ringer for Sarie. She came out of the temple looking exhausted, sad. Could this be the same woman? The earlier one had looked like a slightly younger version of Sarie. This one looked like an older one, after having gained ten pounds and several years. She had that incredible face but both her hips and breasts were slightly heavier than Sahra’s had been and she was ill-kempt, something Sarie never was, even in the worst of times. This woman was dirty, ragged, in despair.
But she did look so much like Sarie that I wanted to go to her and take her pain away, whatever it might be.
I drifted closer, almost enjoying my own self-pitying pain, wondering why the woman wore white when almost all Nyueng Bao except priests dressed in black. Except on special occasions.
I could ask Thai Dei when I got back. If I ever found the way.
I was so near the woman I could have taken her into my arms and kissed her had I been in flesh. I wanted to, she resembled Sarie so much in her face.
Had Sarie had cousins? I know she had uncles because at least one died during the siege of Dejagore. She might have had aunts who stayed behind, too. The party of pilgrims had included only a fraction of the delta population.
The woman in white looked square where my eyes would have been. Her eyes widened. Her skin went pale. She let out a shriek, then collapsed. Several old men in colored robes rushed out of the temple. They began trying to bring the woman around, gabbling at one another too fast for me to follow. She regained her composure as they helped her to her feet. “I thought I saw a ghost,” she said in response to insistent questions. “It must be the fasting.”
Fasting? It did not look like she had been missing many meals to me.
So she had sensed my presence, eh? Worth remembering. But I had a battle to get back to. I was no use to anyone down here, all but lost. I found the road out of town, followed it in a direction I believed would eventually bring me to Taglios. From Taglios it would be an easy course to chart south.
I did not have to make the trip the hard way. Not long after I found the river my whole universe began to rock. After its third unnatural shaking I began to feel pain. Twice more and I went into darkness, passed through, and came up to awareness inside One-Eye’s wagon. The little shit was holding me up by the shirt and slapping me while he growled something about waking my ass up.
I was sitting up beside Smoke when I opened my eyes. I was soaked with sweat. I was shaking.
One-Eye demanded, “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“I’m not sure. Soulcatcher, I think. It was sort of like when I used to fall through time to Dejagore. Only I kind of squirted like a sugarmelon seed, right off to somewhere in the delta. I knew what was happening but I couldn’t control it. In a way it was like walking with the ghost. But I couldn’t see very far...” I realized I was babbling, in Taglian yet. I managed to bite down on it.
“We’ll talk about it later. I’ve got work to do.”
I opened my mouth to protest.
“You want to talk, go see Croaker. Or do whatever else you want. But get out of the way. I’m not kidding about the work.”
Angry, I clambered out of the wagon. It was daytime out there, just as it had been in the swamp. There was a lot of smoke. There was plenty of noise from the front, where the situation seemed to be static. There was not much chance the Old Man would take time out to hear about my misadventure. It did not affect what was happening right now.
I went over to the campfire. It had gone out. In fact, it had gone cold.
Where were Thai Dei and his mother? Where was Uncle Doj?
I found water and drank, wondering how long it would be before the water supply became as critical as the food. I napped. Eventually One-Eye completed his business. He came out and sat beside me. “Now tell me about it.”
I told him.
“You might have learned something important this time, Kid.”
“I’ll let you know after I talk to Croaker.”
I was an afrit buzzing behind Mogaba’s shoulder. He and his captains were rattled.
Longshadow exhorted them to stop embarrassing his warrior empire.
“Somebody pour mud in that idiot’s mouth,” one of Mogaba’s few loyal Nar growled. “What a cretin.”
A cretin with a hearing impairment, apparently. He did not respond to the most direct provocation I had yet heard from any of those who served him.
Mogaba pretended to hear nothing himself. He watched the cliffs. Vicious, incessant fighting continued there. Our troops worked the attack in shifts. Mogaba’s men were unable to do so themselves. He had almost no reserves. There was little hope in his eyes as he sent his commanders back to their units. But he was a soldier’s soldier. He would fight until he fell.
Just like he had tried to do at Dejagore.
He had us by the short hairs if his troops went to eating each other in order to outlast us.
Our siege towers crept forward like tall, slow ships. Our elephants and surviving camp followers pulled them using cables passed through blocks attached to the steel spikes the elephants had planted earlier. When the towers finally stopped soldiers brought mantlets up to fill the gaps between. Protected by the mantlets engineers began erecting a wooden wall.
Missiles left the towers in swarms.
Mogaba had no engine powerful enough to penetrate the coverings on the towers. He had to do something.
The Shadowmaster forbid his doing the one thing that would have helped. Longshadow was worse than any spoiled child, stubborn as a rock. Things were going to be done his way and that was that. Mogaba was not going to take one step forward.
Mogaba was very near his limit but not yet ready to defy Longshadow. He was aware that Lady was over on our side just waiting for a chance to make his life miserable. That would happen seconds after the Shadowmaster took his toys and went home.
If he could not attack, Mogaba decided, he would pull back, leaving his forward works manned by minimal forces. They were to withdraw in such a way that we should not notice them moving out of harm’s way.
But I was watching.
Mogaba told Howler, “You’d better keep your carpet ready. I’m doing this with both hands tied. I won’t last long.”
Longshadow turned. If looks could kill.
Howler’s stance turned ugly, too. He did not want to be labeled a coward in front of witnesses.
A sudden uproar exploded on the far side of the pass. I darted over to the Deceiver camp. And there was Uncle Doj with Ash Wand, butchering Stranglers wholesale. Nasty old Mother Gota covered his back, moving about as slickly as he did.
Not bad for an old gal who practiced only when she could not duck out of it.
How had they gotten over there?
Then the real shit splashed down.
The Prahbrindrah Drah finally launched the attack the Old Man had dropped into his lap.
A dozen war elephants spearheaded the Prince’s assault.
Shadowlander troops rushed to man their forward works. Arrows fell in sheets.
Mogaba showed us. He jelled his defense. He murdered our elephants. His men showed their superior discipline. They sent the Prince staggering back with losses as appalling as those I had anticipated before we saw any of the Captain’s trickeries.
Mogaba launched a vicious counterattack he claimed was just a heavy pursuit. The wooden walls between our siege towers held until Longshadow recognized what Mogaba was doing and ordered him to pull back.
Immediately, as though he knew what was happening even without any reports, Croaker launched an attack on his flank. Only minutes later Lady attacked on the left.
Fighting on the heights grew even more savage. I lost track of my feisty in-laws. Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night fled the Deceiver encampment and went into hiding beneath Mogaba’s watchtower.
There were no surprises from our side. Our divisions took turns attacking. Mogaba’s men repelled them but had to come out into the missile storm to do it. Workmen edged the towers forward again, inch by inch. Longshadow persisted in his irrational behavior. He began to look not only a lackwit but actively suicidal. He kept poor Mogaba operating with his hands tied and his ankles in chains, yet dumped buckets of blame on him because it looked like he was going to fail.
And the heights were aflame.
That facet of the fighting was almost over.
I told Croaker, “I found out why Longshadow refuses to turn Mogaba loose when even he’s got to see that that’s best. He’s scared Mogaba might do a Blade of his own.”
“The Shadowmaster is a blind fool,” Blade said. “He doesn’t know how to look at people.”
I said, “What?”
“Mogaba has to destroy Croaker. He can’t do anything else and live with the image of himself he’s created for himself.”
Croaker made a rude noise.
Blade continued, “Mogaba has his own troubles keeping in touch with reality anymore. This confrontation has become what his life is all about. There’s no future if there’s no victory.”
Croaker was not flattered. “I feel pretty much the same way.” He told me, “Longshadow is right about one thing. The whole world is out to get his ass. What’s morale like over there?”
I winced. Was I supposed to tell him in front of people who knew nothing about Smoke?
“Lower than a snake’s butt,” One-Eye said. I glowered at him.
“They likely to break?”
“Only if Mogaba runs. They may not like him a whole lot but they believe in him.”
I stared at Lady. Her eyes were closed. She might be grabbing the chance to nap. Seldom on stage doing anything obvious, she was working harder than anybody else. She had to be completely alert every second.
I wondered if Longshadow and Howler had any notion how exhausted she must be, if they would try to turn things around by taking advantage of that. I shivered.
The Captain nodded to himself. “We go at three in the morning. Meantime, everybody rest.” His general’s mask faded whenever he looked at Lady. In those moments his feelings, were pretty obvious.
I drifted off into a reverie, recalling the nightmares Lady had described in her book, all so obsessed with death and destruction, much like the ones I kept having. I was sure she was suffering those again. She was fighting sleep most of the time, trying to avoid them. I visualized Kina as Lady had described her, black and tall, naked, glistening, with four arms and eight teats, vampire fangs and nifty jewelry made from babies’ skulls and severed penises. Not exactly a girl just like good old mom. I wondered if Lady had been dreaming any of the times I had glimpsed something that might have been Kina.
I started. For an instant I thought I had caught a whiff of Kina’s perfume, which was the stench of rotting corpses.
There would be plenty of that here soon enough. Only the cold kept it from being really bad already.
I squeaked. Thai Dei was shaking me. Where had he come from? He looked troubled. Croaker was staring at me, too. So were the others. I had drifted right off into a nightmare, never realizing I was gone. The Captain asked, “What’s the matter?”
Lady was just leaving with Swan and Blade. She stopped, looked back at me. Her nostrils moved restlessly, as though she could smell that stench, too. She eyed me hard.
“Excuse me?” I had missed another question while Lady and I exchanged looks.
“Your in-laws, Murgen. Where are your in-laws?”
“I don’t know. This morning they turned up over there in the Deceiver camp and went berserk.” I spoke softly because I was not sure there was any language I could get past Lady and her tagalongs. “Uncle Doj sliced up about fifty Deceivers while Mother Gota covered his back. It was a sight. You don’t want to get that old woman mad.” I shifted to Nyueng Bao. “Thai Dei. Where are Doj and your mother?”
He shrugged. That could mean he did not know or that he was not going to say.
“Thai Dei doesn’t know, either.” But where had Thai Dei been lately? He had not been underfoot for nearly a day.
Referring to what I had said about Uncle Doj and Mother Gota, Croaker said, “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate. Old people can’t—”
“I’m not exaggerating. Blood and shit were everywhere. That old boy’s sword moved so fast you could hardly see it. All those assholes wanted to do was get out of his way. Singh grabbed the girl and ran for it. He’s hiding out under Mogaba’s tower right now. Even the Daughter of Night was a little rattled by the way things were going.”
“What about your in-laws?”
Stubborn bastard. “They’ve disappeared, all right? I haven’t looked for them. Maybe the soldiers got them.” I doubted that, though.
The old man nodded. He glanced at Thai Dei. “I’ll get the angle on them yet. Get some sleep. Be long hours tomorrow.”
Seemed to me like I ought to be plenty well rested.
Thai Dei looked like he really wished he understood a few more languages.
I was right. The heights were the key to the pass. But no genius was needed to figure that out, was it?
Renewed fighting began with a shower of firebombs. For the first time our entire front discharged bamboo poles uphill. Lady foamed at the mouth, cursing the waste.
Once again the Prahbrindrah Drah had been awarded the honor of the first charge.
It was hard to believe that Mogaba’s soldiers had not been obliterated by the preparatory barrage but the Prince ran into fierce, stubborn resistance. The Shadowlanders fought ferociously now because they saw no other options. Their training took over, the way it is supposed to do in deadly situations. The Prince pushed hard but got nowhere.
Mogaba had managed to create a small reserve mostly out of imagination. He shuttled them here and there, applying mind, spirit and will to his own salvation. But he was accursed. And his curse was his lunatic employer.
Longshadow was nothing if not flexible when his own ass was in a sling. Till now the whole point of existence had been to hold the pass against the Black Company. The world would end if we crossed the Dandha Presh. But when the fireballs started zipping around his ears, sizzling black pockmarks out of the tower, he developed a new idea. He told Howler, “Get your carpet ready. General. Summon the Deceiver Singh, the child, and your five most valuable officers.” Of a sudden he seemed entirely calm, totally rational, completely in control, apparently the sort of supreme ruler any man would prefer.
Howler stared at him half a minute before he nodded. The little wizard wore a mask of his own but that did not hide his contempt.
“Withdrawal at this point would be premature,” Mogaba said. I was about ready to concede that the man was a saint. A devil saint, but a saint nonetheless. His patience seemed almost infinite. Longshadow was worse than a spoiled child. I wondered how he had become so powerful. “The situation can be retrieved if you’ll just let me do it.”
“You will do as I tell you, General.”
“I suppose. Just as I have for four years. Which has brought us to this. The finest army of this age is being brought to despair by men who have only to design strategies that exploit the egotism, fears and fantasies of one wizard whose knowledge of things material does not extend to which end of a spear you grasp. I find that they are, by the by, astonishingly well informed about your character flaws.”
Mogaba brushed Howler with a jaundiced glance. Paranoia and suspicion were not exclusive to our side. Neither were private agendas.
Longshadow sputtered in outrage.
Mogaba did not let up. “I will not summon my captains. I will not abandon my positions or desert my troops simply because your courage has deserted you. If you wish to go, go. Let us fight. We may die in fires sent up by the Senjak woman but at least no man of mine will be cut down from behind.”
Longshadow sputtered. He was about to go berserk.
“Find some backbone, man. Find the guts to let the professionals do their jobs. Make your soldiers want to fight for you.” Mogaba turned his back on the Shadowmaster. “Messenger.” He sent word to the heights above that he was not pleased with the way things were going there.
A tall Shadar with an exceptional arm was lobbing firebombs fearfully close to Mogaba’s tower. He had Narayan and the Daughter of Night very nervous down below.
For a while I thought Mogaba was going to carry his point and get away with his rebellion. He scattered messengers everywhere, steadying his troops. And Longshadow actually calmed down after a few minutes instead of flying into an inarticulate rage. He was reflective for quite some time. I feared that Mogaba had gotten through and convinced him of the truth that there was no better ground to meet us, no better men to fight us, no better commander to crush us. I feared his well honed instinct for self-preservation had kicked in.
Then some darkness gradually enveloped the Shadowmaster. I could have sworn that it did not come from within him.
Longshadow squealed like a wounded hog. He stomped and shrieked in a tongue no one understood and fell to his knees. He shuddered all over, having some sort of seizure. This was not like his usual fits of rage. He moaned and wept and talked in a way that made me wonder if even he understood what he was saying. Everyone on the tower gaped. Howler looked around like he expected incoming trouble of the cruelest kind. I took a swift look at Lady but found her doing nothing. She was just more alert than usual, sensing something but not knowing what it might be.
Whimpering, Longshadow climbed to his feet. He faced Mogaba. He began to stomp and shriek while he did something with his skinny, gloved fingers.
Mogaba suddenly dropped like he had gotten crowned by an axe handle.
Longshadow raged at the waiting messengers. He sent one to summon Singh and the child, others after his preferred officers. Those couriers went without any enthusiasm, which you would expect of guys who had just heard they were going to be allowed to stay behind and die so their nutcase boss could make his getaway.
Only the man sent for Narayan Singh actually did his job. The rest decided to get a head start hiking south. They saw no reason to accept betrayal.
Our guys on the heights managed to get a few firebombs into the structure of the observation tower. A sniper plinked away with a bamboo pole. His marksmanship left plenty to be desired. But those little balls of fire would not fly as predictably as an arrow.
Longshadow had Mogaba carried onto Howler’s carpet. Howler said nothing though I thought it was obvious he agreed with Mogaba that the day was not yet lost.
Hell, it seemed to me they were a lot more afraid of Lady than they needed to be. I thought one big sorcerous shitstorm would take care of her. But maybe she had them fooled. Maybe Howler remembered the old days too well to go head-to-head with her now.
No matter. They were not willing to employ their strengths.
The carpet Howler had brought to Charandaprash was far larger than the one that he had had damaged earlier. It could haul a dozen people and all their gear.
Longshadow stopped raging. He seemed baffled by his own behavior, once actually whispering, “What have I done now?” He knew that he had screwed up but he was the kind of guy who, after he shoots his mouth off, cannot back down or admit any failing. The world is full of those people. All of us would be better off if their fathers would strangle them as soon as they showed signs of being that way. This particular fool was willing to sacrifice an army rather than admit his error.
A dozen men were on the platform when Singh and the child arrived. Mostly they were messengers not yet sent out. A few were officers. As Narayan and the Daughter of Night boarded the carpet even the dumbest soldiers realized that the big boys were running. After Longshadow stepped aboard and started to rave again, those about to be left decided not to stay. They joined the rush as Howler lifted the carpet. The carpet shuddered, sank to one side, banged off the edge of the platform, started sliding sideways toward the cliff.
Instantly firebombs came down. Soldiers dodged. The carpet wobbled worse. Men fell off. A firebomb scored. As the flames spread Howler gained better control. The carpet headed south, staggering like a drunken comet.
The men on the heights opened up with their bamboo gizmos. Howler dodged madly through the shitstorm. He did not dodge everything. Longshadow’s desperate sorceries barely kept them from being eaten alive.
What was wrong with Lady? This was her chance. The villains were preoccupied with saving their own butts. If she brought them down now the thing would be done. And Narayan Singh and the kid would be ours for the collection.
Came a sound like ten thousand competing whispers, like a million, like a hundred million, swelling into the rush of a cyclone. It passed me, invisible, and chased up the pass. A horror-struck silence occupied its wake. It must have been a hundred times as terrifying outside the ghostworld. Soldiers from both sides put down their arms to watch.
Howler loosed a wail of despair heard above all the other racket. That woke up the gawkers on the cliffs who really had nothing better to do than blow fireballs at flying wizards. The fireworks show resumed, redoubled.
Howler headed for the ground. His companions’ help was inadequate. He could not fly and fight at the same time. The carpet hit hard. Soldiers were thrown all over the slopes, Mogaba among them. Most just ran for it. Mogaba, when he recovered consciousness, began stumbling back toward his troops, oblivious to the shitstorm around him. He must have had divine dispensation because no harm found him.
Despite the flatness of the ghostworld I felt a surge of elation. We had them! This battle was won. This war was moments from being over! Lady’s whispering witchery would gnaw away at Howler and the Shadowmaster while the guys on the cliffs inundated them with fireballs.
The expanse and depth of the Captain’s ambush, crafted over years, all predicated upon the Shadowmaster’s character, was only now emerging from the shadows. It overwhelmed me, not just because it had worked but because every contingency had been foreseen. Only he and his gods knew what else he had been ready for. There were tons of materiel down there still unused.
It was over. The road was open. I started back to One-Eye’s wagon. We would have to move fast to make sure the Company stayed in a position to take advantage. First thing might be to get all our Company brothers together.
How long before I learn not to rack my eggs up as guaranteed fryers?
The Old Man was not trying to provoke the response he got. Neither was Lady, though she might have feared it. I do not believe Croaker had any idea anything of the sort was possible.
I was almost to the wagon when the ghost realm filled with a stench like somebody just kicked open all the tombs that ever were. I had not encountered much in the way of smells there before and all those had been nothing compared to this.
Fear hit me. Panic was a scant half step behind. I got out of there fast, before the fear made it impossible for me to recall how to escape.
Back up the canyon the Daughter of Night stood atop a boulder, oblivious to the fireballs streaking past, her little arms uplifted to greet oncoming darkness, summoning, her lips taut in an evil smile.
Something was coming. Something that I had glimpsed before.
I tumbled out of the wagon, sort of hung on to the seat with one hand, dangling like a monkey. It was far later than I had thought. Not only was it dark out, dawn seemed to be coming again.
No. This was no dawn. This light came from neither sun nor moon. It came from the pass. Had the firebombs ignited some Shadowlander supply dump?
I wished that was it. I knew better. That was no mundane fire.
I ran toward Lady’s headquarters, stumbling more than making good time. My body was drained. Whatever was happening. Lady would be involved. And being near her might be the safest place.
I did not have far to run but the show was about over before I arrived. Surrounded by her intimates Lady was trying to get the Howler still but failed through no fault of her own.
A new player had come to the game.
Initially its shape and color were unclear. Then it collided with Lady’s power. Power killed power in light. That light showed me something I did not want to see.
It was black. It was a hundred feet tall. It had four arms. It was the thing that haunted Lady’s dreams and, sometimes, ghosted into mine. It was the darkness that had claimed Croaker’s daughter.
Lady battled that colossus before a hundred thousand eyes and, by doing so, confused a lot of people.
The Deceivers had to be whooping it up. Things had gotten tough for them but here was concrete proof that the Year of the Skulls could be achieved. That it might be at hand. That their goddess had grown strong enough to reach into our world to protect her chosen daughter and the living saint, Narayan Singh.
That image of Kina was a lot like Longshadow’s pets, though. It was not immune to fireballs from Lady’s bamboo poles. The panic its appearance caused lured plenty of those into the air. Soon it resembled some mythological creature on a moth-eaten tapestry.
The thing ended before I could catch my breath. Kina guttered, vanished. It persisted only long enough for her child and her protectors to make their getaway. Still listing and smoldering, Howler’s carpet passed from sight. The hundred million whispers began to fade.
Lady collapsed. They lifted her onto the stretcher. Swan and Blade manned its ends. Her most loyal soldiers surrounded them, men who had been with her for years. I told Swan, “You don’t have to worry about them up there. They’re headed for Overlook with their tails between their legs. Mogaba is unconscious and probably hurt. Nobody is in charge anymore.”
Swan gave me an incredulous look. “What the hell you telling me for? Find your damned Captain and tell him.”
“Good idea.” I went.
The Prahbrindrah Drah’s division suffered horribly yet again. Mogaba’s men refused to forget the first law of survival: never turn your back. It is hard to kill a soldier who clings to his training when every instinct and emotion tells him to throw down his arms and ran away or to curl up in a ball to shut out the terror.
The whole point of drilling soldiers till they whine about the stupidity of it all is so those soldiers will do the right thing automatically when the terror comes. Combat is fear and management of fear far more than it is organized murder. Those who manage fear best will seize the day.
The Old Man observed for so long, without intervening in the Prince’s situation, that his own staff started grumbling. I asked him why he was holding off.
“I want him to show Taglios what he’s made of. I want to see that myself. I don’t want there to be any doubts about him when he takes charge.”
It had a nice ring but still sounded suspect. I was developing a very suspicious attitude where Croaker was concerned.
Later he had Lady’s division, supported by Willow Swan’s Guards, replace the Prince’s division. Lady made rapid gains until Mogaba managed to reassert his control on the other side. She was so exhausted the witcheries she could manage amounted to little more than distractions.
I wondered why Croaker did not just back off until she recovered. I no longer spent much time trying to unravel his thoughts, though. Dark designs or otherwise, I did not know the man anymore.
He withdrew Lady’s division shortly before noon. He moved archers up on the flanks, arrayed his own two divisions for the advance, in the follow on mode where one force fights to exhaustion, then the next advances through its positions to attack the hopefully decimated enemy. But before the drums began their grim chant he took a white flag forward. I tagged along, carrying the standard. The damned thing needed to go on a diet. It seemed to be getting heavier.
I was put out. I was here only because Croaker insisted. I wanted to be out riding Smoke, finding out what Longshadow and Howler and Soulcatcher and whoever were up to, The Radisha needed checking, too. I had not looked in on her in far too long.
At least she would not be aware of events here for a while.
Mogaba surprised me by coming down to meet us. He limped. He sported an array of bandages. I imagine that if he had not been so dark he would have shown a fine crop of bruises. One of his eyes was swollen shut. His lips were compressed against the pain. But he betrayed no more emotion than an ebony statue. He said, “You managed to exploit our vulnerabilities very skillfully.”
Warily and wearily, Croaker said, “The asshole hamstrung you. Do we have to waste any more lives?”
“This battle may be decided but the war goes on. Its outcome may yet be determined here.”
That had the ring of truth. If we did not get moving forward real soon we were not going to be able to hold this army together.
Croaker’s smile suited his Widowmaker armor, which he seemed unwilling to shed lately. “Time and again I’ve told you to study the Annals. Time and again I’ve reminded you that you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Mogaba also smiled, as though he knew something. “They aren’t holy writ.”
“Your precious Annals. They aren’t holy. They’re just histories, made up of legends and outright lies in about equal parts.” He glared at me. “It will cost you dear if you put your faith in the past, Standardbearer.”
Now the Captain smiled gently. A battle fought with smiles?
Croaker had shown a lot of originality but Mogaba did not recognize that. He did not because he had not read the books. He would not confess it publicly but he had not read the books because he could not read. In Gea-Xle, whence he came, reading was not a warriorly skill.
Right now there was no doubt who held the initiative on the psychological front. Croaker said, “So I have to kill a bunch more of you before you’ll face the truth?”
“Truth is mutable and subject to interpretation. In this case its final form remains undetermined. Perhaps you brought a good recipe for rock.” Mogaba turned away, his piece said. He limped uphill. The set of his shoulders said his pride ached just having to show us his pain. He muttered to himself, something about the Shadowmaster no longer being there to hobble him.
I said, “Hey, chief, he don’t got Longshadow on his back no more.”
“He doesn’t have him to stand in front of him anymore, either. Look out!”
Thai Dei jumped up and got a shield over my head just in time to keep me from drowning in a shower of arrows. “Wow! The weather really turned bad fast.”
The boys uphill had a laugh at our expense. We made a spectacle backing away, three of us trying to stay under one undersized shield.
That crafty shit Mogaba had come down only to buy a few minutes for his troops. They attacked as soon as he reached them. Their nerve was no longer what it had been but their discipline remained firm.
Arrows from the flanks and towers and fireballs from everywhere made their effort look ill-advised. Nonetheless, they pushed us back like they thought this attack was their last hope. The situation began to look desperate. But then Lady decided she had rested enough.
Charandaprash became quite colorful.
The fighting did not last long after that. But when the silence fell even our reserves were too exhausted to chase anybody. Croaker let the remaining camp followers have that honor, telling them they could keep any loot they took.
Those who tried mostly got themselves killed.
Mogaba’s plans were the hot topic around the big bonfire. It seemed like everyone over the rank of lieutenant was there and every man had a theory. Or two. And not a one of those was sound.
I had gone ghostwalking and had not been able to find Mogaba, even by backtracking through time. But just a hint of a specter of a death stink had sent me running before I could get a real good look around.
Was she going to be out there every time I went?
Croaker kicked nothing into the speculative stew. He just sat around looking smug and more relaxed than I had seen in years.
Lady sat beside him and she looked pretty good, too. Like she had gotten some real sleep for once. I told her, “I want to talk to you when you get a few minutes. I don’t have hardly anything about you to put down.”
She sighed, said, “I don’t think I could tell you anything interesting.”
I could use Smoke to study her back-trail. But that would not tell me what she was thinking.
She asked Croaker, “Why do you look like the cat who stole the cream?”
“Because Longshadow and Howler didn’t come back.” He looked at me. He wanted to know why. But not right now. It could wait. “And because you have.” After her rest she seemed none the worse for wear despite her head-to-head with Kina. Or whatever that was. “Because now they’re just going to hide out in Overlook while Longshadow tries to cobble together something from garrisons and militias made up of men who’d rather not get involved at all.”
He was still the Shadowmaster. He had not played his trumps to their limit. And the walls of Overlook were a hundred feet high. I hoped Croaker did not think all we had to do now was coast.
“You notice he hasn’t really said shit,” Swan grumbled to Blade. He had not had any trouble accepting his buddy back. Some of the men could not believe the whole defection had been a swindle. Especially those who had had relatives among the temple troops Blade had exterminated. “The son of a bitch flat ain’t going to tell nobody what he’s up to. Not even you and me. He’s got tricks up his sleeve and we’ve got to find out about them same as any poor dork that they’re going to happen to.”
He stared at Lady sadly for a moment, unable to see what she saw in the Old Man. I had wondered that a few times myself before Sarie and I fell in love.
It does not have to make sense. Just pray for the freedom to indulge it.
Speaking of limits to freedom, my in-laws were still missing. Except for Thai Dei, of course. He was there even when my shadow was gone.
Blade laughed at Swan’s sourness. He was a changed man after his adventure. He had found his niche. “You really want to know, you’d better borrow those books from Murgen. They say it’s all in there if you know where to look.”
Murgen lied, “Good plan. But Murgen didn’t bring the books along. Except for the one he hasn’t been working on enough lately.”
Swan’s comment was brief and obscene. Like Mogaba, he did not know how to read.
Blade suggested, “Get Murgen Big Ears to tell it to you. He can quote chapter and verse almost as good as Croaker. He’s Croaker’s handpicked boy.”
The old Blade did not have a sense of humor. I was not sure I liked this one better. He was not interested in being funny.
“I’ll do it if the pay is right,” I told them. “Us mercenary types don’t do diddly unless we get paid.”
I did have to put some thought into staying away from Smoke long enough to get some solid notes made. Charandaprash was a critical juncture in Company history. I was not doing it justice.
And when I did go walking with the ghost I would have to concentrate on things I really needed to observe.
I could not go just to get away from the pain.
The pain was not so all-devouring anymore. Maybe a couple of brushes with Kina were the cure for romantic excess.
“Thai Dei,” I said, softly and in Nyueng Bao to show this was merely a personal matter, not business. “What does it mean when a Nyueng Bao woman wears white?”
“Ai?” He seemed surprised. “I don’t understand, brother.”
“I just remembered a dream I had a couple nights ago. Somebody who looked like Sahra was in it. She was wearing white. Nyueng Bao always wear black except sometimes when you’re out here in the world. Or if you’re a priest. Isn’t that so?”
“You dreamed of Sahra?”
“I do all the time. Don’t you dream about My?”
“No. We are taught to let their spirits go.”
“Oh.” I did not believe that. If that was completely true there would be no call to seek revenge. “So what does it mean, wearing white? Or does it mean anything?”
“It means she is recently widowed. A man who lost his wife would wear white as well. She may do so for as long as a year. While she is in white no one may advance a marriage offer though of course the men of her family will be looking around unofficially. In the case of a man his father and brothers may examine the possibilities but not be allowed to speak on his behalf until he puts off the white.”
This was news to me. “The whole time we were in Dejagore I never saw one Nyueng Bao in white. And Sarie sure didn’t wait any year after Danh died to get interested in me.”
Thai Dei showed me one of his rare smiles. “Sarie was interested in you before Danh died. Sarie was smitten the first time you came to see Grandfather. You have no idea the quarreling that went on. Particularly after Grandmother announced that it was fated that Sarie take a foreign lover.”
So the smile was not one of good humor.
I could imagine Mother Gota’s take.
“But Sarie never wore white. Nor did anybody else.”
“Nor was there a square inch of white cloth in that city that was not worn by a Taglian soldier. Grandfather did not think it politic to take their tunics.” Thai Dei smiled again. That only made his face more skull-like. He added, “We were a small party. After all that time on pilgrimage we knew one another. We knew who had lost a mate. And we knew nothing could be done till we got back to our villages and priests anyway.”
So the woman I saw while I was lost in the delta was a widow. I guess that explained why she was haggard and unhappy.
“You should tell me more about Nyueng Bao. I’d feel less stupid when something like this comes up.”
Thai Dei’s smile died. “There is no longer any need for you to know our customs, is there?”
I was not one of them, even by marriage. He was here because he had assumed an obligation, not because I was family.
I needed to think about that.
Croaker let everybody rest thoroughly before he launched what he hoped would be the final assault on the Shadowlander defenses. I had an ague or maybe something I picked up from the proximity of Kina for a while, hot sweats alternating with cold shakes. Consequently I did not get out to scout our enemies.
No matter. The Old Man was able to gossip with his crows.
There were no living Shadowlanders anywhere in the defensive works that Longshadow had deemed so critical. While we were being soft, sitting around on our behinds resting, Mogaba and his captains had gotten their soldiers moving. They had even tried to destroy the stores they could not drag with them but were forestalled in that by the efforts of an alert Shadar cavalry detachment.
Death is eternity. Eternity is stone. Stone is silence. Stone is broken.
In the night, when the wind no longer moans and the small shadows go into hiding, stone sometimes whispers. Stone sometimes speaks. Stone sometimes sends its children plunging into the abyss. Sometimes a tendril of colorful mist rises to caress the figure pinned to the tilting throne.
Shadows scamper playfully about the plain glittering in the moonlight, devouring one another and growing stronger. Their memories are as old as stone. They remember freedom.
Sometimes the leaning throne slips a millionth of an inch, tilting farther. This happens more and more frequently now.
Stone shudders. Eternity sneers as it devours its own tail. This cold feast is almost finished.
Even death is restless.
I could hear One-Eye cursing fate in general and several Vehdna Taglians in particular. One wheel of the wagon had become pinched between boulders and the soldiers were not getting it pried out fast enough to suit the little wizard. He had been in a foul temper all morning. I do believe he thought we would not continue on south after we won at Charandaprash. I do believe he thought the Old Man would be content to occupy the pass, then withdraw to warmer climes and wait for summer.
Where was Longshadow going to go? Home. And because of the earthquake home was a house that would not be completed any time soon. So where was the big hurry? What kind of tunnel-vision fanatic did not even take time out for one good drunk after winning a battle so huge and obviously unwinnable going in?
One-Eye had been saying all this and a lot more from the minute Croaker had told him to move out. One-Eye was not a happy trooper.
He was even more unhappy because I got to ride. My fever and chills thing kept coming and going. The Captain saw that as a good excuse to keep me near Smoke against whom he continued to caution me regularly. I did not tell him that walking with the ghost was becoming as unattractive as attractive, that it was getting scary out there. I had not talked it over with One-Eye yet, either. I knew I should. I would not like myself much anymore if something happened because I failed to warn them.
But I did not want to cry wolf, either. One-Eye had not mentioned running into anything unusual during his occasional trips out. Maybe I was letting my imagination get the best of me.
I was in pretty good shape for the moment. A little shaken by the ride but neither feverish nor fighting a chill. Might be an opportune time to take a look around.
Outside, One-Eye snarled something at Thai Dei. “Not a good idea, One-Eye,” I snapped in Jewel Cities dialect. “He’d as soon kick your ass as look at you.”
“Ha! That ought to be interesting. See what JoJo does. Might even wake him up.”
Like most Company members One-Eye had a Nyueng Bao bodyguard. His was Cho Dai Cho, as unobtrusive and unambitious a bodyguard as ever lived. He was around only because the tribal elders had decreed it. He did not seem to have much interest in saving One-Eye from himself or anyone else. I had not seen Cho four times in the last month.
I could not find Soulcatcher. I knew she was there and Smoke was not fighting me but the woman was operating under a spell that hid her from even this sort of seeing. I could guess where she was roughly, though, because of the comings and goings of crows in the mountains west of us.
I looked around for One-Eye’s shapeshifter friend Lisa Bowalk but there was no trace of her, either. Nor could I pinpoint Mogaba and the couple of Nar who had chosen to stand by him when he deserted the Company for service to the Shadowmaster.
This was something to think about. If people had begun to suspect we were watching... But there was Longshadow in his crystal dome atop Overlook’s tallest tower, seated at a stone desk, calmly giving orders to messengers, arranging for the defense of his dwindling empire rationally and with vigor and making no effort to hide himself from me.
And down below, in a private apartment, here was an uncomfortable and weakened Narayan Singh cringing in a corner while the Daughter of Night, like a dwarf rather than a child, apparently carried on half of a conversation with her spiritual mother. There was a smell of Kina in the room but not that terrifying sense of presence I had encountered before.
I observed for a while. I ran back the hours. There was no doubt. Narayan Singh was not running anything anymore. He was an adjunct to the Daughter of Night, useful principally as a voice through which she could communicate with the Shadowmaster and the Deceivers. But Singh was beginning to suspect that his usefulness was running its course, that it would not be very much longer at all before the child would be ready to dispose of him.
When the time came she would do it with no more thought or emotion than she would discarding a well-gnawed pork rib.
Her communions with her divine parent were reshaping her fast.
Kina seemed to be in a hurry, perhaps pressed for time, so that she did not have time to wait for the child to mature into her role.
I was very uncomfortable around the kid even though she was a hundred miles away. I got out of there.
I tried tracking Howler down but caught only glimpses as he buzzed here and there on his raggedy-ass, oft-patched smaller carpet. He seemed to have upped his level of precaution dramatically, too. I could spot him only when he was in a really big hurry and, apparently, outrunning his invisibility shield.
Who would he be hiding from? If he did not know about me?
There was still the Radisha, whom I had not spied on for way too long.
In present time she was in the midst of a large audition with the chief priests of the major temples of the city. The subject was, not surprisingly, the war. In particular, the sacrilegious, atheistic, anticlerical stance of the men directing the Taglian effort. The new generation of priests were much less contentious amongst sects than had been their predecessors, who had paid for their stubbornly parochial attitudes with their lives.
“There’s no doubt,” the Radisha admitted to a priest of Rhavi-Lemna, a goddess of brotherly love, “that the Liberator has been sending troops raised among the devout to pursue his feud with Blade.” News from the war zone was still far away. “He’s blatant about it, it’s true, but you people keep going along with it.”
A priest in vermilion grumbled, “Because Blade has been promised the protectorship here when the Shadowmaster triumphs. He’ll exterminate us all. If he’s still alive.”
“Which brings us to the crux again, doesn’t it? Even though my brother has become a competent commander and a corps of experienced officers has developed, neither the soldiers themselves nor the people believe we can defeat the Shadowmaster without the guidance of the Black Company. We’re still in a position where we’re compelled to let darkness wrestle darkness, hoping our kind of darkness triumphs and we can control it after it does so.”
Rhavi-Lemna was a reasonable goddess. It would not be natural for her priests to be firebrands. But the Gunni have a hundred gods and goddesses, great and small, and some of them are a lot less tolerant. Someone shouted, “We should kill them now! They’re a greater danger to our way of life than any masked sorcerer eight hundred miles away.”
There were still many Taglians who had not served in the armies nor traveled south to see what legacy the Shadowmasters had left in the lands retaken from their rule. Men who did not believe simply because they preferred something else to be true.
This was an unending squabble that might not be settled in my lifetime. There was a war on and as long as we did not yet have it won the “Kill them now!” school of thinking would remain a distinct minority. But the “Kill them later!” school had plenty of members.
“There aren’t more than fifty or sixty of them,” the Radisha countered. “How hard can it be to dispose of them once they’ve outlived their usefulness?”
“Pretty damned hard, I imagine. The Shadowmasters haven’t managed. Neither have the Deceivers.”
“Steps are being taken.”
Interesting. I had not seen any sign of that.
Time to cruise days gone by, then.
Away I went. Skipping like a seven-year-old girl, toes coming down every hour or so as I headed toward the last time I checked on the Woman. There was not much there. A lot of the same stuff. One idea after another bounced off Cordy Mather in the deeps of night, every one rejected by Mather, and the more vigorously so the better the Woman seemed to like them.
Of more interest was the fact that she had started looking for Smoke. In fact, she was getting suspicious, though not yet in any major way. Mather kept telling her we were all right and must have made some arrangement to look out for Smoke. We would not just let the old boy starve.
“They hate him, dear. He did everything he could to undercut the Black Company.”
“They would find a crueler way to get even. After they woke him up. So he could appreciate the pain.”
Cordy echoed my thoughts perfectly. Starvation would do fine but I wanted him conscious while he went.
Waking up to find himself in our hands might just be enough. He would have a shit hemorrhage.
All the way back to my last visit I found nothing particularly exciting. The Woman never said anything interesting except when she was finished using Mather and then she said nothing original. Yet I could not help thinking that something was going on.
She was the Radisha Drah. Her whole life had been spent aware that everything she said or did might be observed by someone who did not wish her well.
I skipped back to today but did not find anything to hurry back to the Old Man.
There would be some excitement when the news from Charandaprash arrived. People would stop thinking as clearly and carefully. I would be back.
I took a dive into Smoke’s old hiding place before I left. The old Annals were right where I had hidden them.
Interesting to note, though, as I departed, that there were crows all over the Palace district.
One-Eye was still cursing when I came out. Cursing again, I learned, as I let myself down from the rear of the wagon. A different wheel was stuck. We had moved several miles. I was bone dry. I lifted the lid on One-Eye’s waterbarrel. There was not much there. The little that remained was pretty nasty. I drank it anyway.
I walked around to where One-Eye was abusing a fresh crew of victims. “You little shit. Quit barking at the help. They’ll stuff that damned hat down your throat and I’ll end up having to walk. Where’s the Old Man?”
“Crows all over, eh?” Croaker mused. “Interesting. Guess it doesn’t surprise me.”
“Hers?” There were crows around us right now. Naturally. He would not let Lady run them off.
“Are they all nowadays?”
“Take it for granted. You won’t be unpleasantly surprised. Tell me about Longshadow.” The last sentence was not verbal at all but in the finger speech we had learned way back when Darling, the White Rose, was with the Company. We employed it sparingly anymore and I had not thought of using it to get around the crows. It was so obvious when you considered it. There would be no way for the critters to relay the signs.
Nobody believed that the birds understood what they relayed now. They just carried the words.
My fingers were no longer as nimble as once they had been. I had a hard time telling him that Longshadow had done a turnaround and was all business now, calm and sane and decisive.
“Interesting,” he said. He looked up the pass. The Prince’s troops, in the vanguard, had sprung a Shadowlander ambush. The fighting was getting heavy. The column was crushing up behind it. This could get bad.
I looked at the slopes rising to either hand. If Mogaba had a lot of men up there he could embarrass us easily.
“He doesn’t,” Croaker said, as though I had spoken my thoughts.
“You’re getting spooky.” He wore most of the fancy Widowmaker armor most of the time now. There was hardly ever a time when he did not have a crow on his shoulder. He seemed to know his favorites because he always had tidbits for them.
“When I have to play a role I try to live it.” He began talking with his fingers again. “I want you to find Goblin. It is critical.”
He signed, “I would do it myself but there is no time.” Aloud, he added, “These delaying tactics are working very well for Mogaba. This pass is just too damned tight.” He turned away, strode up the stalled column. The Prahbrindrah Drah was about to get talked to like a new recruit.
Suddenly, over his shoulder, he shot, “Where’re your in-laws, Murgen?”
“Where are they? What’re they up to?” He used colloquial Taglian, which meant he did not care what Thai Dei heard. Or specifically wanted him to know about the query.
“I haven’t seen them.” I glanced at Thai Dei. He shook his head. “Maybe they went home.”
“I don’t think so. If that was the case the rest of these clowns would be gone with them. Wouldn’t they?”
I did not think so but there was no need arguing the point. Croaker would never be comfortable with the Nyueng Bao. I told him I would keep an eye out and would let him know if I learned anything, then moved along.
I ran into Sleepy on the way back to One-Eye’s wagon. “Hey, kid. How you doing?” I had not seen him since I gave him his assignment that night in Taglios. He had been working with Big Bucket, helping oversee the special forces teams. He looked tired but still not old enough to be a soldier.
“I’m tired and hungry and beginning to wonder if being buttfucked by my uncles really was worse than this.”
Anybody who could sustain a sense of humor after what Sleepy had suffered was all right by me.
I wondered if he would ever go back and kill them. I doubted it. That sort of thing was acceptable in this bizarre southern culture.
Sleepy asked, “You talk to the Captain yet?”
“I talk to him all the time. I’m the Annalist.”
“I mean about the standardbearer job. You said you might...”
“Oh. Yeah.” His excitement was obvious. But becoming standardbearer meant those above you thought you were destined for big things in the Company. The standardbearer often became Annalist. Frequently he became Lieutenant because he was always near the center of things and knew everything that was going on. The Lieutenant almost always becomes Captain when the job comes open.
Croaker was an anomaly of epic proportion, elected at a time when there were only seven of us, none more qualified, and nobody else would take the job.
“I bounced it off him. He didn’t say no. He’ll probably leave it up to me. And that means it’s a someday sort of thing because right now everybody in this army is working twenty hours a day. There’s no time to teach you anything.”
“We’re not doing anything. I could just hang around you and—”
Big Bucket’s voice rose above all the other tumult of an army on the move, telling Sleepy to get his dead ass back up here, they’ve decided nobody else can crack this nut but us.
“Good luck. And don’t get in a hurry, kid,” I told him. “Hell. Do like I’m doing with the Annals. Wait till the siege of Overlook. We’ll have plenty of time then. Including learning to read and write.”
“I’ve been learning. Believe it or not. I know fifty-three common characters already. I can puzzle out almost anything.”
Written Taglian is fairly complicated because there are more than a hundred characters in the common alphabet and another forty-two in the High Taglian used only by Gunni priests. A lot of the characters duplicate what they mean but distinguish caste. Caste is very important among the Gunni.
“Keep at it,” I told Sleepy. “You’ll make it on determination.”
“Thanks, Murgen.” The kid began scooting uphill, sliding through the press like he was greased.
“Don’t thank me,” I mumbled. Most standardbearers are not as lucky as I have been. It is not a job with an extended life expectancy.
I spotted Lady across the pass, as always surrounded by her admirers and most of the Nar who had not deserted the Company. I headed that way.
Men moved to let me through. Things like that happen when you can leave someone as a good taste or foul odor in history’s mouth. Croaker really made the importance of the Annals an article of faith with everyone in the Company.
Lady looked around. Her ordinarily impassive expression betrayed an instant of irritation. I said, “Looks like we’re going to be stalled here till Bucket’s crew convince Mogaba’s people they’d really rather go home and get in out of this weather.”
That was looking kind of bleak. A wind was building. It was colder than the wind had been for days. Heavy clouds were piling up overhead. Looked as if we were going to get some snow.
“Yeah. Let’s hope,” Swan said. “We need to get down out of these rocks.” He was not talking to me, really. “I hate mountains.”
“I’m not too fond of cold and snow, either,” I said. Of Lady I asked, “You really need to keep avoiding me?”
“What do you want to know?”
“How can you be getting your powers back? I thought that business in the Barrowland stripped you forever.”
“I’m a thief. Otherwise, none of your business.”
Her entourage sneered at me, mostly because they thought that would make points with her.
“Have you been dreaming again?”
She thought about that one before admitting, “Yes.”
“I thought so. You’ve been looking a little ragged.”
“You want to play you have to pay the price. What about you, Annalist?”
I found I was reluctant to reveal anything. Especially in front of those guys. I forced myself. “Yeah. Something that might have been Kina turned up in my dreams a couple times. Almost like an intrusion from outside. I wondered if that might have been the same time she was bothering you.”
That interested her. You could see the thoughts begin moving behind her eyes, the consideration, the calculation. She told me, “If it happens again, note the time. If you can.”
“I’ll try. How did you manage to go head-to-head with Kina the other night and come out in one piece?”
Without missing a beat Lady shifted to Groghor, a language on its last death rattle. “That was not Kina.” I learned it from my grandmother, whose people had all been wiped out in the consolidation wars that had built the Lady’s empire. Granny was dead and so was my mother and I had not used the tongue except to cuss people out since I signed on with the Company.
“How do you... ?” I sputtered. “How could you know that I... ?”
“The Captain has been kind enough to have your work copied and forwarded to me. You mentioned Groghor somewhere. I am a little rusty. I have not spoken this language in more than a century. Pardon my lapses.”
“You’re doing fine. But why bother?”
“My sister never learned the language. Nor did this bunch, half of whom are probably spies for someone.”
“What’s the deal? You said that wasn’t Kina. Sure fooled me if it wasn’t. Sure fit the description.”
“That was my beloved sister. Pretending to be Kina. I expect she surprised Kina’s worshippers as much as she surprised the rest of us.”
“But...” The Daughter of Night had seemed happy enough.
“I can touch the real Kina, Murgen. Believe me. It’s why I don’t sleep well. The real Kina is still in her trance. She can only touch the world in dreams. And I have to stay a part of those dreams.”
“So Kina is definitely real, then?”
“There is something that fits the bill of particulars, Murgen. I’m not sure that when it’s awake it thinks of itself as Kina or as a goddess. It does want to bring on the Year of the Skulls. It does want to get free of its chains. But these are just emotions I have gained from it over the years. It is far too alien for me to know it well.”
“Like Old Father Tree?”
She had to think to remember the tree-god thing that had ruled the Plain of Fear and defied her when she was still the Lady.
“I never touched that mind.”
“Why would your sister pretend to be Kina?”
“I have never known why my sister does any of the things she does. She has never been rational. Two does not follow One in her scheme, nor does Three come before Four. She is capable of spending incredible energies and vast fortunes on the execution of a prank. She is capable of destroying cities without ever being able to explain why. You can know what she is doing but not why or you can know why she is doing something but not what. She was that way when she was three years old, before anyone knew she was cursed with the power, too.”
“You believe you’re cursed?”
She actually smiled. When she did her beauty shone through. “By an insane sister, for sure. I wish I had even the foggiest notion why she’s just out there, doing nothing but watching and constantly reminding us that she’s there.”
“Don’t you get a little tired of those damned crows?”
“Yes, I do. I thought revenge was her thing.”
“If that was all she wanted she would have squashed me a long time ago.”
There was a stir behind me. Scores of eyes were staring at us as everyone in earshot tried to figure out what was going on. It had to be some secret if we were going to talk it over in a language nobody knew.
Willow Swan looked like his feelings were hurt.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a voice from behind me. “The Liberator’s compliments and would you be so good as to get your ass on about the job he gave you? He said to suggest that he wants the answer before sundown.”
That was not in a language no one else understood. It cheered Swan right up. Even Lady chuckled.
I do believe I blushed. “I’ll want to pursue this further,” I told Lady, who did not seem thrilled by the prospect. To the messenger, who happened to be the nephew of a prominent Taglian general, I said, “Just for that I think I’ll go do what the Old Man wants.”
It took me a long time to find Goblin but there was no hurry. The Shadowlanders up the pass were being particularly stubborn. Big Bucket was having to use a lot of firebombs to root them out.
I found it hard to believe. Goblin was on the other side of the Dandha Presh. His Shaded Road was an expedition that had pushed a commando force across the Shindai Kus. Croaker had talked about the possibility once, ages ago, before we ever even went after Dejagore, but I always thought it was completely impractical. So much so that the possibility had not occurred to me even when I had found Goblin on the shore of the Shindai Kus.
Goblin was still Goblin. The desert only baked it in. “I’m one step and ten seconds short of exhaustion,” he complained to the man nearest him, a Company brother named Bubba-do who was not too bright and who, I noted, kept Goblin on his left side, which was where he had the bad ear. “But I’m here. I’m in place. I’m on time. And nobody knows we’re here.”
Lights flared in the mountains above. Tiny balls of fire rose over the high Dandha Presh. Bubba-do said, “Looks like da Captain won his bet.”
“I’m worried. This damned thing’s been going too good. I’ve been fighting these people for years. I know how they think. I know Mogaba.” So did Bubba-do but that did not matter in Goblin’s view. “He ain’t going to let himself get whipped by Croaker. Whole point of him going over to the Shadowmaster was he wanted to prove he was a better soldier and general.”
Goblin went on and on. His men ignored him most of the time. After he had heard scouting reports about the surrounding terrain he allowed his men to build several small, carefully hidden fires. That side of the Dandha Presh was colder than the northern slope. It was impossible to manage without heat if you were not moving.
“I should’ve found a farm. Maybe a small town. Someplace where we could get inside.”
“That would mean killing a bunch of people so they couldn’t rat on us and that probably wouldn’t do any good anyway because somebody probably would’ve got away.”
It was almost dark. The excitement in the mountains was getting colorful. I began to wonder if Mogaba himself was not up there directing the resistance.
“You got company,” somebody said. Instantly everybody at Goblin’s fire found a chore that had to be handled right away somewhere else. Everyone but Goblin’s Nyueng Bao bodyguard, who was a man so unobtrusive I had yet to learn his full name. It was Thane, Trine, something like that. This man merely moved to a place more comfortable on a taller rock and laid his sword across his lap, ready for business.
The reason the others wanted to be elsewhere was evident a moment later. I had found one of my missing targets.
A huge, cruel-looking black panther stalked out of the darkness, settled near the fire. Goblin reached out and scratched her behind the ears.
What the hell? This particular panther had no love for him. Though her squabble with One-Eye was an order of magnitude bigger.
“So you decided to help out after all, eh?” Goblin said. “It never was that hard to get along.” Off he went on an odyssey of the imagination, describing in fantastic detail why she was a natural ally of the rest of us despite One-Eye’s having had to do in Shapeshifter. Shifter really had given him no choice, now, had he? Anyway, it was only a matter of time before they completed their research into the character of release spells. Last time he saw One-Eye they were just three terms and a postulate short of putting a wrap on it.
The wind had a real bite as I went looking for Croaker. There were bits of snow zinging around. Nobody had moved since this afternoon. Fireballs flickered across the sky up ahead. There were almost no fires. There was nothing to burn. Men huddled with one another for warmth. Hardly anyone lifted their eyes as I passed. I could have been the Shadowmaster himself and nobody would have cared. Had I been carrying hot food I would have been hailed as a messiah.
Croaker did not have a fire, either. But he had a girlfriend to keep him warm. Something nobody else had. The rat bastard.
“You want to go for a walk?”
Hell, no, he did not. Neither would you if you if you were bundled up in some blankets with a beautiful woman on a freezing night. “Use your imagination here, Murgen. Do I look like somebody who wants to be interrupted?”
“All right. Be that way. I’ve finally located the man you asked about. He seems to be where he’s supposed to be. But—”
“Then go keep an eye on him.”
“There’s a complication.”
“Keep an eye on him. He’s not likely to get into much before I can come check on him. Later.”
With him and Lady both scowling at me I decided I would take the hint and go away. Shaking my head. There are things you can accept intellectually but still not imagine. Those two in the throes of passion fell into the latter category.
If he was in no hurry I was not, either. I had a snack and a nap and a dream about Sarie before I got back to work. It was not a dream I wanted. It was Sarie looking aged and haggard and wearing white. But that was a better dream than the visit to ice hell that followed.
That one did not change much with time, nor did any more details develop. But I never got comfortable with it.
Goblin had all his illusions in place but he did not bother the first fugitives to hurry out of the Dandha Presh. Those would be the men least likely to be trouble in later times. He did have a few individuals captured so he could get a better idea of what had happened to the north. He told the panther, “A shithead like Longshadow don’t deserve followers like Mogaba.”
The panther rumbled deep in her throat.
“You got to wonder about Mogaba. Why the hell don’t he just walk?”
Mogaba had everything under control. His fighting withdrawal was going well for him.
The hundred men with Goblin were all young Taglians interested in becoming part of the Black Company, I gathered. Clever Goblin had sold them the notion that this operation was an entrance exam. The nasty little shit.
He had to feel lonely out there. His bodyguard, Thien Due, knew only a few words of Taglian and had no more inclination to gossip than Thai Dei did. The panther’s conversational skills were limited. The commandos were all under twenty-five. Goblin spoke Taglian well enough but did not speak the language of the young.
In the dialect of the Jewel Cities he muttered, “I miss One-Eye. He may not be worth two dead flies but... Nobody heard that, did they? Us old farts got to stick together. We’re the only ones who know what it’s all about.”
“Or do we?”
“Yeah. I think we do.”
“Were you saying something, sir?” one of the young sergeants asked, rushing up.
“Talking to myself, lad. Guaranteed intelligent conversation. I was thinking out loud about Mogaba. How everybody on the other side’s got their own thing going. Ten minutes after they whip us everybody over there is going to be measuring everybody else for a dagger in the back.”
“Sir?” The young Shadar seemed scandalized by the suggestion that our side might yet lose this war.
“If they blow it, with everything they’ve got going for them, and we come out on top, the same shit is gonna happen on our side.”
Goblin began using his illusions and commandos to begin picking off Shadowlander fugitives, to teach job-appropriate skills while the work was still easy, and to keep the boys from getting bored.
Larger Shadowlander forces began to come down, hurrying, in disarray, walking into Goblin’s setup like they had rehearsed it. Snipers picked off obvious officers. Missile fire drenched the troopers. When they organized for a counterattack they found themselves fighting illusions and shadows.
From my vantage I began to wonder what Goblin was expected to accomplish. He was causing trouble out of all proportion to his numbers but what he was doing was unlikely to have any permanent impact. Unless, of course, him being here meant he was not somewhere else. Which was just the sort of thing that might occur to Croaker. Cook up some cockamamie mission for Goblin so he would not be around getting drunk and feuding with One-Eye and generally obstructing progress.
Still... The Shadowlanders could not find him. He kept giving them ghosts. Word rolled back up into the mountains. Panic rode its back. That effect was all out of proportion to Goblin’s numbers, too.
There was one major theme to Goblin’s ambushes. He was directing his strongest efforts toward eliminating officers. He seemed to have a way to identify those in plenty of time to slide his commandos into position.
The forvalaka. The woman in cat form. She was scouting for him. But how was she communicating?
I spend a lot of time being puzzled by things going on around me.
“I feel like I’m a mushroom on a mushroom farm,” I told Croaker. “Kept in the dark and fed a diet of horseshit.”
Croaker shrugged, said the famous words. “Need to know.”
“He didn’t get Mogaba, if that was the plan. That son of a bitch must take a bath in grease every morning, he’s so slick. He did get that Nar Khucho.”
“Not much of a triumph,” I agreed. “He was already on a stretcher with one leg amputated. But I had to let you know and I’m going to have to put it into the Annals because he did belong to the Company once.”
Croaker shrugged, grunted. That was how we did it.
“He’s got nobody left, then,” I said. “He’s over there all alone, without one friend.”
“Don’t cry for him, Murgen. He’s there because he chose to go there.”
“I’m not crying for him. I had to go through the siege of Dejagore with that guy in charge. Far as I’m concerned anything that happens to him won’t be pain enough.”
“You thought any more about turning the standard over to somebody else?”
“Sleepy’s been bugging me. I told him we’d look at it once we get set up around Overlook.”
“You think he’s the right one, go ahead and start breaking him in. See about his literacy level, too. But I want you staying with the standard for the time being.”
“He’s learning his Taglian. He says.”
“Good. I’ve got work.”
Son of a bitch was not going to let me in on anything.
Goblin’s efforts were the straw that broke the Shadowlander force. They cracked. The survivors scattered. Goblin and his crew faded into the wilds, headed south.
Fear spread before them, far exceeding their capacity for creating despair.
I liked how things were going over there now. The little wizard and his boys were running free in a land not yet prepared to resist. A land not sufficiently recovered from its earthquake horrors to be able to resist.
Still, I felt like we were rushing toward some great doom.
We had done that before. Everything had fallen into our laps till we found ourselves decimated and besieged in Dejagore.
Croaker took the cavalry and me and raced ahead of the army. Fleeing Shadowlanders fell to our lances. Opposition was spotty. Our foragers spread out. The idea was to scavenge whatever supplies were available quickly so we could keep the main force concentrated once it came out of the mountains.
I kept thinking how we had done this same thing after our unexpected victory at Ghoja Ford years ago. But when I mentioned that to Croaker he just shrugged and said, “This is different. There aren’t any armies they can bring up. There aren’t any new sorcerers they can bring out of the woodwork. Are there?”
“They don’t need to. Between them Longshadow and the Howler can eat us alive. If they decide to do it.”
We entered a moderate sized town that was absolutely empty of people. Nor had there been many there before our appearance in the region. The earthquake had not been kind.
We did find enough shelter to get in out of the cold. We got fires going, which was maybe not a brilliant idea tactically. Nobody warm wanted to go outside again.
This was a problem that would be universal among our troops. Hunger would be the only force capable of keeping the men moving.
It had been a week since I parted with Smoke. I missed him more than I had thought possible a week ago. I had convinced myself that I no longer needed him to deal with my pain. But that had been while he was always there and I was always out roaming the ghostworld.
When you are riding around the east end of hell, trying to keep your mind off the fact that you are freezing your ass off while starving to death, you tend to think about your other troubles.
My big one came back with a vengeance.
The only good of the venture, so far, was the humor to be found in watching Thai Dei try to keep up on that ridiculous swaybacked grey. The man was one stubborn little shit.
At least once every four hours Croaker asked me about my in-laws. I did not know anything. Thai Dei claimed he knew nothing. I reserved judgment on his veracity. Croaker took a jaundiced view toward mine.
Word came in that a Shadowlander deserter had been picked up who knew the location of an ice cave stuffed with edibles.
“You buy it?” I asked.
“Sounds like somebody thought he was going to get his throat cut and made up a story. But we’ll check it out.”
“Just when I was getting used to being warm.”
“You used to being hungry, too?”
Out we rode, and onward and onward we rode, day after day, through fields and forests and hills marred by quake effects and abandoned by the population. The Captain and I rode those giant black stallions, him outfitted in his cold Widowmaker armor and me lugging the bloody standard while Thai Dei tagged along behind like he was trying to become some sort of clown sidekick. We found the prisoner’s ice cave. Near as we could tell, it was a real treasure trove. The earthquake had dropped an avalanche down its throat. The good people of the province had been trying to open it back up. We relieved them of all that hard work and left a troop to await the coming of reinforcements hungry enough to dig for their supper. We continued on toward Kiaulune and Overlook, managing to sustain ourselves and avoid trouble until we were just forty miles north of the stricken city.
The countryside there was unmarred by disaster, quiet, orderly, almost pretty but a little too wintry for my taste. Suddenly, without warning, despite the Old Man’s crows, we ran into Shadowlander cavalry and not a man among them was in a good mood. Their charge broke us into half a dozen clumps. Whereupon a horde of infantry types tried to horn in. Lucky for us they were regional militia, poorly armed, completely inexperienced peasants. Unfortunately, it is true that some totally untrained and inexperienced dickhead can get lucky and kill you just as dead as a martial arts priest like Uncle Doj can.
I managed to get the standard set atop a knoll, the Old Man there with me inside a circle of friendly folks. “The one day you don’t wear the damned costume,” I yelled. “They wouldn’t have had the balls for this shit if you’d dressed up.” Who knows? It might have been true.
“It was getting heavy. And it’s cold and it stinks.” He shrugged into the hideous, grotesque armor. As he lowered the nasty winged helmet onto his head a pair of monster crows dropped onto his shoulders. Traceries of scarlet fire began crawling all over him. A few thousand more crows began zooming around overhead, every one bitching his little heart out.
After a chance to take in the crows, Widowmaker and the Company standard most of our attackers decided to take the rest of the day off.
The stories had to be really bad down here.
The cavalrymen were made of sterner stuff. They continued fighting. They were veterans. And Longshadow probably had them convinced we were going to roast their wives and rape their babies, then turn the rest of them into dog food and shoe leather.
But we scattered them. Before the soldiers could get carried away chasing them, the Old Man headed south again, declaring, “We have bridges to capture and chokepoints to clear.”
A few men did not heed the recall. I asked, “What about them?”
“They have a chance to serve as a valuable object lesson. Those that survive can catch up.” He was feeling hard.
He did not think about arranging care and protection for the wounded. That was not something he had overlooked ever before.
It might be that there were no Company brothers among the wounded even though we had nearly a dozen with us.
That consideration often seemed to lie at the root of his decisions, yet never so blatantly that outsiders were conscious of it. I hoped he would keep it low key. We had troubles enough.
I had seen Shadowcatch a hundred times in Smoke’s dreams. I had spent cumulative days prowling Overlook. I thought I knew the city and the fortress about as well as anyone who lived there. But I was not prepared for a reality unfiltered by Smoke’s thoughtless mind.
The remains of Kiaulune were plain hell. Famine and disease had claimed almost everyone who had not been killed by the earthquake. Longshadow, taking unwanted advice, had tried to help. Too late. But he had allowed refugees to establish themselves in the shadow of Overlook and had been making provision to care for them. In turn, those people were replacing the lost workers who had been building Overlook before the earthquake.
Very little work had gotten done since the disaster. Even Longshadow had been forced to stipulate that survival demands superseded his desire to complete his invulnerable fastness.
There were no children. Some arrangement had been made to care for them elsewhere. A clever step, uncharacteristic of the Shadowmaster. That idea had to have originated with someone else. In fact, I could think of no one in Longshadow’s coterie to whom such a thing would occur.
It looked as though the little construction effort put out lately had been directed principally at providing housing.
This would not keep up once the pressure was off. To Longshadow all the people of the Shadowlands were his to use and dispose of as he saw fit. He just wanted to keep them alive long enough to be used.
“Hell really is leaking into the world,” Croaker observed. He stared at the bleak, stinking, unwalled remains of Kiaulune. He paid no attention to the gleaming magnificence beyond the city.
I did. “We’re too damned close here, boss. We don’t have Lady to cover us.”
That did not seem to trouble him. The only time he paid Overlook any attention was when he paused once to glare and say, “You didn’t get it done in time, did you, you son of a bitch?”
From the limited point of view of someone seeing the fortress with mundane eyes the place seemed immeasurably huge. Mostly the towering walls had been constructed of a grey-white stone but in places blocks of different colors had been worked in, along with silver, copper and gold, to scrawl the whole with cabalistic patterns.
What forces had Longshadow gathered to defend those ramparts since last I walked with the ghost? Did it matter? Could any army scale those incredible walls if the construction scaffolding was cast down?
Most of that was still in place.
Croaker mused, “You may be right. I shouldn’t rub their noses in the fact that I’m out here personally.” He turned a little more and looked past Overlook, at the escarpment in the distance. “Have you ever gotten up there?”
I looked around. No one was there to hear. Not even a crow. “No. I can get about halfway across the space between Overlook and a place on the road where there’s a landslide that seems to be what they call the Shadowgate around here. Not much to look at. But that’s all the farther Smoke will go.”
“I’ve never done better. Let’s get out of here.”
We withdrew and pitched camp north of Kiaulune. The soldiers were not comfortable there. None of them wanted to set up housekeeping so close to the last and craziest Shadowmaster.
I tended to agree.
Croaker said, “You could be right. I’d feel better myself if Smoke was down here and you could do some scouting.” Then he grinned. “But I do believe that we have a guardian angel better than Lady looking out for us.”
“Catcher. She’s as goofy as a squirrel with three nuts but she’s predictable. You been able to get close to her?” Like he was sure I would try.
“Not really. Smoke won’t go.”
“You have to remember how determined she is to use me to get even with Lady for having kept her from getting even before. That means she has to take care of me.”
“Oh.” Dumb me. I had not thought about how he could be using Catcher. “You’re willing to bet your life on Catcher?”
“Hell no. She’s still Soulcatcher. She could get interested in something else and just walk out on everything here.”
“But she does have a score to settle with Longshadow, too.”
“That she does.” He grinned. He was pleased about the way things were going.
I was worried about Soulcatcher. She seldom did anything overt but in her own mind she would be one of the major players. Eventually she would do something dramatic.
Was there anything Croaker had not foreseen and made part of his plan? He did not think so, I am sure.
I did not agree. Because I had rock-hard evidence that he was not ready for everything. There is no way he could have anticipated me starting to have the same sort of nightmares as Lady though I am just as certain that he did expect hers to continue.
Here near Kiaulune my nightmares were powerful and frequent. I could not take a nap without a visit to the cavern of the old men. Frequently I went to the plain of bones and corpses. On occasion I slipped off to the land of myth. Or so I interpreted it. It was a vast grey place where gods and devils met in divine battle and the most ferocious thing on the field was a gleaming black monster whose footfalls shook the earth, whose claws rent and tore, whose fangs...
The hideous cold place with the slimy old men was there every time, though. Every time. It was repellent in the extreme, yet attractive. Each time, as I walked the cold shadows, I found another familiar face among the old men.
I thought I had it handled. I really did. But that was because I did not think Kina would bother being subtle with a dim candle like me. I ignored the fact that she was the goddess of Deceivers. And forgot that Lady had told me that all that appeared to be Kina did not have to be Kina.
The dead place came to smell sweeter. It became more relaxing, safer, more comfortable, just as walking with the ghost had become comforting. I had a suspicion my enjoyment of that comfort was one reason the Old Man brought me down here ahead of everyone. He wanted me to go cold turkey.
I wanted to tell him I had it handled because I believed I did. But as we lay there in the hills waiting for the rest of the army to trudge up the road I spent a lot of cold days and colder nights huddled by a fire, spooking out Thai Dei, fiddling with my notes and napping. A lot. Because when I slept I could go away from the center, where the pain remained in a hard little core that would not die. Sometimes I even seemed to fly the way I had with Smoke, though not far, nor to anywhere interesting. I was the opposite of Lady, who fought her dreams all the way.
It was a gentle seduction. Kina gradually replaced Smoke.
I noticed that the Captain watched me sidelong in the mornings, warily, when I arose reluctantly. Thai Dei did not say anything but he seemed worried.
The men were singing around the campfires even though it had snowed. Morale was up. We were finding enough to eat. We had halfway decent shelter. The enemy was making no attempt to discomfit us. Lead elements of the main force were in the province and scattering in a wide arc around Kiaulune, settling in to await the final phase of the campaign. But even when the mob is sitting around, playing tonk, somebody has to do something to keep things moving. The Old Man reached into his trick bag and pulled the straw with my name on it.
I think he rigged the draw.
I got the job of taking a patrol north to meet a quartermaster crew inbound to begin surveys for camp layouts once we got serious about besieging Overlook. They were bringing in some prisoners Lady thought the Captain would find interesting.
Three times outbound we had brushes with partisans. We had another coming back. The tension was draining. I was exhausted. Still not a hundred percent despite his protests to the contrary, Thai Dei was used up, too. “Message from your honey,” I told the Old Man, tossing him a leather packet that was heavy enough to have a couple bricks inside. “Clete and his brothers are with this bunch. They’re already talking about building a ramp to get over Overlook’s wall.”
“Fat chance. You all right?”
“Dead tired. We ran into partisans again. Mogaba’s changing his style.”
He gave me a hard look but told me, “Get some rest. The guys have found a house I want you to look over tomorrow. You might grab Clete and them and have them tell you how much work the place needs.”
I grunted. I had a nice place now, dug out of the side of a hill, a real blanket hanging in front to keep out the wind and contain the warmth of my fire. Our fire. My brother-in-law holed up there with me. We were turning the place into a manor house in our spare time. Compared to anything we had had since leaving Dejagore.
Between us we had just about enough energy left to grunt at one another over some hard bread while we got the fire built up, then collapsed into piles of rags we had harvested from the ruins of Kiaulune.
I fell asleep wondering how bad the guerrilla problem could get. This time of year we could starve them into submission simply by keeping a lot of foragers out. But if they survived the winter we would have big trouble with them in the spring, when we would have to plant our own crops, then would have to work and protect them through the harvest.
I did not worry about it long. Sleep jumped up and grabbed me. And the dreams were waiting for me.
This time it started with the dead waste, the expanse of corpses and bones, but it was not quite the night land it had been before. The stench was absent. The corpses looked like corpses in paintings, pale, with little blood showing. There was none of the corruption that finds us after we have lain in the sun for a few days. There were no flies, no maggots, no ants, no scavengers tearing at the bodies.
This time some of the corpses opened their eyes as I passed. A few looked vaguely like people I knew long ago. My grandmother. An uncle I had liked. Childhood friends and a couple friends from early days in the Company, now long dead. Most of those seemed to smile at me.
Then I encountered the face that I should have expected, the one the whole series of dreams must have been choreographed to throw at me. Yes, I should have expected it but it did take me completely by surprise. “Sahra?”
“Murgen.” Her response was no more than the stir of a faint breeze. A ghost’s whisper. As you would expect. As I would expect, anyway, being naive about such things.
I saw the trap instantly. Kina was going to offer me back my dead. What she had taken away she would ransom. At that moment I did not care. Of course.
I could get my Sarie back.
I had my Sarie for as long as it took for my emotions to become totally engaged. Then I was in a dark, cold, terrible place I was meant to believe was where Sarie went when I was not there to pull her into the light.
Not real subtle.
I guess Kina never needed subtlety.
The gimmick tore me right up. But...
The outside influence quickened my reason as well as my emotions. I realized Kina was playing to a native audience, as though I was Taglian or from one of Taglios’s cousin states, where the religions are closely related. She could not encompass the fact that I had not been raised up steeped in southern mythologies. Even this touching of me in my dreams did not convince me that she was divine. Her scheme was something Lady could have pulled off at the peak of her powers, something her dead husband could have managed from his grave.
I did not let her set the hook, sweetly baited as it was.
So she grabbed the pain of my soul and dragged it naked and screaming through the briars.
I wakened with Thai Dei shaking me violently. I yelled, “Take it easy, man! What’s wrong?”
“You were screaming in your sleep. You were talking to the Mother of Night.”
I remembered. “What did I say?”
Thai Dei shook his head. Lying. He had understood. And what he had heard had upset him.
I put my mind and face in order, dragged my dead ass over to the Captain’s place.
Something was wrong with that man. I mean, I have pretty spartan tastes myself but I can think of a few luxuries I would demand if I were dictator to a vast empire, a powerful warlord, Captain of the Black Company, and there were people around who would be just thrilled to make me more comfortable. But he was living in a half tent, half lean-to thing, partly a sod hut, just like the meanest groom. It kept him out of the wind. His only claim to status was that he did not share.
He did not have sentries hulking around him despite our presence deep in enemy territory, despite our suspicion that a few dedicated Stranglers still lurked within our ranks.
Maybe he did not believe he needed guards because an old dead tree loomed above his shelter. That almost always boasted a crew of bickering crows.
I let myself in. “You’re counting on Catcher’s obsession way too much, boss.” Though I had had the feeling that I was being examined closely as I approached. Maybe Croaker had cause to feel confident.
He was asleep. He had left a lamp burning. I turned it up a bit, went to work trying to wake him. He came around but he was not pleased. Seldom did he get a chance to sleep as much as he wanted. “This better be good, Murgen.”
“I don’t know if it is or not but I do have a point,” I assured him. “I’ll try to get through it fast.” I told him about the dream. And about the dreams that had gone before it.
“Lady told me you might be vulnerable. Not knowing about Smoke, though, she didn’t see how you could be.”
“I’m sure there’s a reason,” I said. “I think I know what she’s trying to do. What I can’t figure is why.”
“That tells me you really haven’t thought it through.”
“You know exactly why but you’re too lazy to figure it out for yourself.”
“Bullshit.” But I capped my temper. I sensed that I was about to enjoy one of his lectures.
“You’re of interest because you’re the standardbearer, Murgen. You’ve spent the last several years backfilling new material into my Annals and Lady’s so you know them pretty well. By now you ought to suspect that there’s something special about the standard.”
“The Lance of Passion?”
“According to the Shadowmasters. We don’t know what that means. Maybe the answer is in those old Annals you squirreled away at the Palace. Whatever, it’s clear that some people would like to lay hands on the standard.”
“Including Kina. That what you’re saying?”
“Evidently. You studied the Kina myth while you were trapped in Dejagore. Weren’t the standards of the Free Companies of Khatovar supposed to be the pizzles of demons or something?”
That led to an exchange of crude speculations about why Kina wanted the standard, a couple of chuckles, then the Captain said, “You did the right thing, letting me know. We’ve all got these things going on inside us. We’re keeping them locked up and secret and we’re getting used. I think. Look, hang in there. Stay aware. One-Eye will be here tomorrow or the next day. You talk to him then you do exactly what he tells you. Understand?”
“I got it. But what do I do about it?”
“Gut it out.”
“Gut it out. Right.”
“On your way back to your den take a look at Kiaulune and ask yourself if you’re the first guy in this world who ever lost somebody he loved.”
Oh oh. He was getting impatient with my refusal to heal.
“Right. Good night.” I wished. It was more like hell night for a while. Every time I slipped off I fell right into the plain of death. Not once did I get to the cavern of the old men. As soon as it got bad I awakened, usually on my own but twice with help from Thai Dei. Poor guy. No telling what he really thought about me after four years of watching me go through these bizarre behaviors.
Finally, apparently baffled by my lack of receptivity, Kina abandoned me trailing more than a hint of exasperated threat behind her.
And when it was over I was not quite sure the whole thing had not been some monster entirely of my own imagining.
I slept. I awakened. I crawled out of my shelter. As another privileged character I could have gotten by without sharing, too, if I had wanted. In fact, as Annalist, I rated a tent of the sort used for small conferences, a veritable canvas palace where I could spread out and work.
I rated it but I would never see it.
The standard stood outside. It did not look like something that ought to excite the envy of a blacksmith, let alone great powers. It was nothing but one rusty old spearhead atop a long wooden shaft. Five feet down from the head there was a cross-piece four feet long tied to the shaft. From that hung the black banner bearing the device we had adopted in the north, the silver skull exhaling golden flames that originated as Soulcatcher’s personal seal. The skull was not human because it had exaggerated canine teeth. No lower jaw was present. One eye-socket was scarlet. In some representations that was the right eye, in some the left. I have been assured there is significance to that but nobody ever told me what. It may have had something to do with Soulcatcher’s changeable nature.
Every Company man wore a silver badge bearing a similar design. We have them made where we can. Some we take off our own dead. Some men are carrying three or four as part of Croaker’s thing about returning to Khatovar. In fact, I think Otto and Hagop have several dozen of them they brought down from the north.
The skull device is not that intimidating in itself. It is scary because of what it represents.
Everyone in this end of the world at least pretends to be spooked by how nasty the Company was the last time it passed through. Hard to believe that anybody could have been so cruel that the fear would persist for four centuries. There is nothing so terrible that it does not get forgotten in a few generations.
Kina had to be responsible somehow. She had been manipulating these people for an age. sending out her dreams. Four centuries was plenty of time to create an enduring hysteria. In fact, if you assumed the great black goddess was behind that you could explain a lot that never made sense before. It even explained why there were so many crazed people involved, great and small.
Might it be that Kina’s departure from the play would cause an outbreak of sanity at all levels?
But how do you get rid of a god? Is there any religion where they teach you that? How to get your god off your back if he gets too damned obnoxious? No. All you ever get is advice on how to bribe them to leave you alone for a few minutes.
Once again One-Eye threatened to prove useless. “You got me by the balls,” was his response when I asked him how I could deal with my dreams.
“Goddamn it! Croaker said you’d have the answer. But if you’re going to be that way, screw you. Stick it in your ear.”
“Hey, Kid. Take it easy. What way?”
“You’re too young to be so cynical, Kid. Where’d you get the idea I couldn’t straighten out something as simple as a dream raider?”
“I got it from something this lazy-ass little old man told me about twenty seconds ago.”
“Did not.” He stomped around. “Shit. You’re sure the Old Man told you come to me about this?”
“And you told me everything? Didn’t leave some little detail out, you’re too proud to mention, that’s going to get me bit on the ass if I do something?”
“I told you everything.” It had been hard but I had.
“I got to get out of this. I’m losing it.” He showed me his best glower. “You’re sure the Old Man sent you to me? You weren’t just hearing voices?”
“I’m sure.” I stared at that stupid hat of his, wondering if I could get it to hold still long enough for me to put it out of its misery.
“Nobody likes a smartass, Kid.”
“Even you have friends, One-Eye.”
He pranced around some. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t think Croaker knows what he’s doing. Why should I?”
I did not realize that he was talking to himself, not me. “On account of I’m a brother and I need help.”
“All right. Don’t tell me you didn’t ask for this. Come on up to the wagon.”
A shiver of anticipation overcame me. It was so strong both One-Eye and Thai Dei noticed. One-Eye muttered to himself. As he started to turn he told Thai Dei, “You come along, too.”
The why of that proved to be Mother Gota. “She turned up, eh?” I observed. I probably did not sound thrilled. The fact was, I was not thrilled. Having Mother Gota around generally made me wish I had boils on my butt instead.
“Found her sitting beside the road looking downright forlorn as we started down the south slope of the pass.”
I knew it was a waste of time but I asked anyway. “Where have you been? Where is Uncle Doj?”
Did I say something out loud? Apparently not. She did not respond. She began carping at Thai Dei about how he was keeping himself. Maybe his hair was too long or his beard not plucked. What was insignificant. There was always something to complain about and something to criticize.
One-Eye said, “While they’re getting caught up I want you to climb in the wagon and go for a stroll with the ghost. Whoa, boy! Let’s not get so eager. If the Old Man wants you to see me about your dreams there’s only one possible reason.” He looked over his shoulder. He laid a really hard look on mother and son. “Something he told me to spend some time on before you all took off for your adventures over here.”
“Think you can get to the point?” I had both hands on the wagon’s tailgate.
“All right, smartass. You get in there, you take Smoke back to the night your wife died. You watch it happen.”
“Shut up, Kid. I’ve had all your self-pity I can handle. So’s the Old Man, I guess. You want to be able to deal with these dreams, you go back there and take a damned good look at what made you the way you are right now. You watch every second of it. Three times, if that’s what it takes. Then you come back and we’ll talk.”
I started to argue.
“You shut your mouth and do it. Or you just stay away and spend the rest of your life living in your own fantasies.”
He pissed me off so bad I wanted to jump his ass. Which would not be wise on several counts. I let the anger give me a boost as I hoisted myself into the wagon.
I guess you do not quite know yourself, ever. I really did believe I had it handled until the encounter with Kina, the temptation of the impossible promise to give me back my dead. After that the pain had grown back up again.
It was amazing how much I did not want to go watch Sarie die. The force that moved me on, that convinced me I had to do it, was a whiff of carrion I caught as something that might have been Kina passed me in the ghost world. Looking for me?
I found the Palace. I stalled by looking in on the Radisha Drah. Not much had changed except that word had arrived about the triumph at Charandapresh. Debate was more lively now, with the Radisha forced to take the unpopular viewpoint and remind her fellow conspirators that this unexpected victory did not mean that Longshadow had been conquered. In the end she closed debate by ordering Cordy Mather to take a party of fact finders south to gather reliable information. A bureaucratic solution that just pushed back the day of treachery.
With a reluctance I did not entirely fathom, so powerful was it, I rode Smoke to my old quarters. They were unoccupied still. Everything lay where I had left it, gathering dust.
I had Smoke move backward, very gingerly as we approached the time when the evil had occurred. For some reason I felt it was very important that I not encounter my previous self. That if I did so I would get caught back there living the whole thing over again just as I had a number of times with my plunges into the darkness of Dejagore.
Maybe I could warn Sarie. That woman in the swamp had been aware of me for an instant. Maybe someone who knew me as well as Sahra did, and me wanting to change things as much as I did, could force a warning across the barrier of time.
It seemed my trips back to Dejagore may have changed a few things, though there was no way to be sure.
There. Guards and whatnot rushed all over the place. Some chased Stranglers, some headed for my apartment. This would be after I had arrived myself. So I needed to jump maybe another half hour.
I did so, going down to the entrance the Deceivers had used to penetrate the Palace. I had seen these murders before because I had been curious how men so alert could be taken by surprise. The first couple of Deceivers came disguised as temple prostitutes fulfilling their obligations to their goddess. It had not occurred to the guards to turn the ladies down. That would have been sacrilegious.
This was before I became involved. I jumped upstairs, to the apartment, where my mother-in-law and Sarie were doing housework, concluding the day. Uncle Doj and To Tan were asleep already. Thai Dei was not, probably because he was waiting for me to return from a job where he had not been welcome. He had his eyes closed and seemed to be trying to shut out his mother’s carping two rooms away.
How Sarie managed I do not know. Particularly when I was the object of this diatribe.
Mother Gota was more fierce than usual. She wanted to know when Sahra was going to abandon this headstrong idiocy—a thousand curses upon the head of Hong Tray—and get herself back to the swamps where she belonged. There was still a chance she could marry, though certainly not well, seeing as she was past her best years and she had allowed herself to be defiled by a foreigner.
Sarie took it with such calm I knew she was accustomed to it and did not let her emotions be touched. She went about her business as though her mother was not speaking at all. Soon they finished what they were about. Sahra went to our room without so much as a “Good night,” which only irritated her mother more.
I always knew Mother Gota did not approve of me and suspected she talked behind my back but I never guessed it had gotten that virulent. The sound of it told me the only reason Mother Gota had come to Taglios was to get her daughter back home.
I was aware that she had broken some tribal taboos in coming to me but I had misjudged the true depth of feeling of the Nyueng Bao toward outsiders.
The apartment became very quiet. To Tan and Uncle Doj were snoring. Sarie fell asleep almost instantly. Mother Gota was too busy complaining to turn in immediately.
She did not need an audience, apparently.
I was there hovering when the apartment door opened and the first Strangler slipped inside. He was a black rumel man, an assassin who had killed many times. One after another, a whole troop followed him in. They believed they were going to attack Croaker, the Liberator. The last reliable intelligence they had from inside the Palace had Croaker living in this apartment. He had turned it over to me little more than a week before.
The results were unfortunate for everyone but the Old Man.
Moments after they entered they were aware that there were several people in the apartment. They whispered too softly to be heard. Fingers pointed. They split into four teams, three of three men each while another half dozen stayed in the main room, just inside the hall door.
To Tan, Thai Dei and Uncle Doj were nearest that room. To Tan was nearest of all. Then Uncle Doj. Then Thai Dei.
To Tan never had a chance. He never woke up. But Thai Dei was not asleep yet and Uncle Doj must have had a guardian angel. He popped up as the Strangler team hit him. The arm-holders, whose task it was to keep the victim from defending himself while the senior Strangler got his rumel around his neck and finished him, were not strong enough for their task. He threw them off, then dropped the master Strangler with a violent smash from an elbow. Before the other two could get back at him he reached Ash Wand.
Thai Dei came to his feet as the door to his room swung inward. The arm-holders hit him as he headed for his swords, flinging him violently across the room but not before he got hold of his shortsword.
Thai Dei shouted warnings as he lashed out.
The Stranglers waiting in the main room stormed back to help their brothers. By the time they arrived Mother Gota was up and flailing around with a sword and Sahra, who had no weapon whatsoever and no way out of our room except through the melee, was trying to find some way to block the entrance.
I studied the next two minutes over and over. During them a dozen people died. All of them Deceivers. Thai Dei managed to get his arm broken. Uncle Doj chased survivors into the hall.
It did not happen the way I had been told but it was close enough to that point. But afterward no bad guys got in behind Doj and murdered Sahra. Sahra was in bad shape but she was alive. When Doj returned from the chase Mother Gota suggested she be given something to calm her down. Uncle Doj agreed. In minutes Sahra was out, in the bed where I would see her shortly.
I had to go away for a while. I would be arriving any minute. I came back when I knew I would be out cold, having drunk something offered me by Uncle Doj while I lay down with my beloved.
I watched them take Sarie and To Tan away. Uncle Doj, Thai Dei and various relatives, as Mother Gota would tell me after I awakened, carrying their bodies off for proper funerals at home.
I managed a fair amount of anger out there despite the emotion deadening environment.
I followed the party off to Nyueng Bao land. There were other bodies, too. The Strangler raid had taken the lives of several Nyueng Bao bodyguards.
Surprise, surprise. Sarie came back to life before the party ever cleared the city. She acted just about the same as I had on wakening and finding her gone. “What’s happening?” she demanded. “Why are we here?” She directed her questions to Uncle Doj but Doj did not respond except to make a gesture toward Thai Dei, who was distracted by the pain of his broken arm.
Thai Dei mumbled, “We are taking you home, Sarie. There is no longer any reason for you to remain in this evil city.”
“What? You can’t do this. Take me back to Murgen.”
Thai Dei stared down at the cobblestones. “Murgen is dead, Sarie. The tooga killed him.”
“I’m sorry, Sahra,” Uncle Doj said. “Many tooga paid with their lives but it was a price they were willing to pay. Many of our people died, too, and where they failed or they were not present many of the others perished as well.” The word he used as “others” was Nyueng Bao for anyone who was not Nyueng Bao.
“He can’t be dead,” Sarie cried. She for sure had the wail of grief down pat. “He can’t die without seeing his child!”
Uncle Doj stopped dead in his tracks, as numb as a poleaxed steer. Thai Dei stared at his sister and began making a whimpering sound. Since I was getting used to Nyueng Bao ways I assumed he was distraught because it would be impossible for him to marry off a sister who carried the child of an outsider.
Uncle Doj muttered, “I am beginning to believe your mother is wiser than we thought, Thai Dei. She blamed all this on Hong Tray. Now it begins to look like your grandmother was entirely too clever. Or we just misunderstood. Her prophecy may have included Murgen only indirectly. It might be about the child Sahra is carrying.”
I understood that the woman in the swamp, twice seen already, must be Sarie herself.
“There will be no place for Sahra, then,” Thai Dei said, pain obvious. “If she bears an outsider’s bastard ...”
“Take me back,” Sahra said. “If you won’t let me be I will be Nyueng Bao no longer. I will go to my husband’s people. There will be a place for me with the Black Company.”
This was social heresy of an order so high that both Thai Dei and Uncle Doj were stricken speechless.
I do not believe I would have been speechless had I been able to get at those two right then. I lifted away. I had heard enough to know where I stood, where Sarie stood and where my faithful companion Thai Dei stood. The Old Man might not be right about the Nyueng Bao but he was for sure not wrong.
I skipped forward in time rapidly, tracking Sarie. Thai Dei and Uncle Doj took her to that temple where I had spotted her before. They left her in the hands of a great uncle who was a priest. Sahra was, in essence now, an orphan, though she was a grown woman twice married. The temple was where Nyueng Bao without family went. The temple became home. The priests and nuns became family. In return, the orphan was expected to dedicate his or her life to good works and whatever deities the Nyueng Bao worshipped.
Nobody ever set me straight on that, though the temple where they stashed Sahra boasted several idols that looked a lot like various Gunni gods.
Shadar have only one god of sufficient magnitude to warrant an idol and Vehdna doctrine proscribes any graven images at all.
I focused in on Sarie as she was today. I followed her about her duties for an hour. She was helping keep the temple clean, carrying water, helping with cooking, pretty much exactly what she would have done had she been living in one of the hamlets with a Nyueng Bao husband. But the people of the temple shunned her.
No one spoke to her except a priest to whom she was related. Nothing needed to be said. She had defiled herself. Her only visitor was an elderly gentleman named Banh Do Trang, a commercial factor whose friendship Sahra had won during the siege of Dejagore. Banh had been the interlocutor between us the last time Sahra’s family had tried to keep us apart. He had made it possible for Sahra to slip away and reach me before she could be stopped.
Banh understood. Banh had loved a Gunni woman when he was young. He spent most of his time trading in the outside world. He did not think everything “other” was purely evil.
Banh was good people.
I searched hard and picked my moment carefully, when Sarie was at her afternoon prayer. I brought my point of view down in front of her, right at eye level. I exercised all my will. “Sarie. I am here. I love you. They lied to you. I am not dead.”
Sarie made a little sound like a puppy whimpering. For an instant she seemed to stare right into my eyes. She seemed to see me. Then she bounced up and fled the room, terrified.
One-Eye just kept slapping me till I came out of it. “Goddamn, you little shit, quit it!” My face was sore. How long had he been pounding me? “I’m here! What the fuck’s your problem?”
“You’re doing a lot of yelling, Kid. And if you was talking any language your in-laws could understand you’d be up shit creek. Come on. Get it under control.”
I got it under control. You have to learn to manage emotion if you are going to survive in our racket. But my heart continued to pound and my mind to race. I shook like I had a bad ague. One-Eye offered me a large cup of water. I drained it.
He said, “It’s partly my fault. I wandered off. I didn’t think you’d stay out that long. Thought you’d figure it out and get your ass back to see what we plan to do about it.”
I croaked, “What you plan to do about it?”
“Don’t got no plans. I think the Old Man was just gonna let it slide and keep his eyes open till he decided you needed to know.”
“He wasn’t going to tell me?”
One-Eye shrugged. Which meant probably not.
Croaker was no more enthralled by my marriage than were Sahra’s people.
“I need to see him.”
“He’ll want to see you. When you’ve got yourself under control.”
“You let me know when you can get by without a lot of screaming and carrying on.”
“I can do that right now, you little shit! What did you guys mean, not telling me?”
“You let me know when you can get by without a lot of screaming and carrying on.”
“You little shit.” I was running out of venom. I had been out there a long time. I needed to eat. I had a feeling I would not be allowed a snack till after my interview with Croaker.
“You ready to talk?” Croaker asked. “Done with screaming and carrying on?”
“You guys spend the whole time I was ghostwalking rehearsing your act?”
“So what are your in-laws up to, Murgen?”
“I don’t have the faintest fucking idea. But I’m thinking maybe I want to put Uncle Doj’s feet in the fire and ask.”
Croaker was drinking tea. Taglians are big tea drinkers. The Shadowlanders of these parts were bigger tea people. He took a sip. “You want some?”
“Yeah.” I needed liquids.
“Think about this. We put him to the question on account of you suddenly know they fucked you over. You think anybody, Nyueng Bao or otherwise, might wonder how you suddenly knew when you’re only like eight hundred miles from the evidence?”
“I don’t care—”
“Exactly. You’re not thinking about anything but you. But anything you do is going to touch every member of the Company. It might touch every man who came over those mountains with us. It might change the course of this war.”
I wanted to belittle his claims because I was hurting bad and very much wanted to do some hurting of my own. I could not. Time enough had passed for reason to begin rearing its reasonable head. I bit down on the words that rose in my throat. I drank my tea. I thought. I said, “You’re right. So what do we do?”
Croaker poured me some more tea. “I don’t think we do anything. I think we go right on the way we have been. I think we do the trap-door spider thing. I think only three guys know what an incredible tool we’ve got and nobody else needs to know.”
I grunted. I drank some tea. I said, “She thinks I’m dead. She’s living her whole life based on that lie.”
Croaker fiddled with his fire. He looked into his bag of liberated tea. One-Eye finally caught on. “Oh. Yeah. I figured you was familiar with that book of the Annals that was written by the Captain’s woman.” He showed me a sneer with a couple of teeth missing.
“Right. You just keep on being reasonable. See if I care. Shithead.”
“I got a great idea, Kid. Come on back to the wagon with me. Something I found the other day you might be interested in.”
Croaker said, “You guys don’t wander too far. We’re getting enough people in here now, it’s time to start harassing Longshadow.”
“Of course,” One-Eye said. He ducked out the doorflap grumbling, “Just can’t leave shit alone.” I ducked out behind him. He did not stop. “We could sit out here for the next hundred years and not hurt nobody. Set up our own damned kingdom. Starve the son of a bitch out. But no! We got to do some kind of...” One-Eye glanced back. We were out of earshot of the Old Man. “Enough of that shit. You dickhead. You never told me about Goblin.”
“What’s to tell?”
“You knew where he was all along, didn’t you? He wasn’t dead or nothing. You got around the commands Croaker laid on Smoke and found the worthless little shit.”
I did not say anything. Goblin was still out there on his own somewhere, presumably continuing his mission. Presumably still needing secrecy.
“Ha! I was right. You never could lie for shit. Where is he, Kid? I got a right to know.”
I started to back away. It might be time to take my act elsewhere. “You’re wrong. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he’s even still alive.” Which was true.
“What you mean, you don’t know?”
“I got a speech impediment? You’ve had Smoke all month, remember? You. The short shit who was loafing around up there in those hills while I was down here dodging shadows and Shadowlander ambushes.”
“Now I know you’re shitting me. There ain’t been one shadow seen since the night we broke them at... Bullshit! You’re feeding me bullshit.”
“Yeah. I guess I forgot the first rule.”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Never confuse you with facts.”
“You smartass. I hung on in this world two hundred years so I could put up with this shit.” He jumped up on the tongue of his wagon and leaned inside. I began to put a little more distance between us. He dug around in some rags behind his driver’s seat. He glanced over his shoulder, saw me moving. “You just hang on right there, you peckerhead.”
He jumped down, started waving his arms around while he went to squeaking and squealing in one of those languages wizards use so the rest of us will think there is something terribly strange and mystical about what they do, kind of like lawyers. One-Eye sometimes flew off into unprovoked fits of lawyer-ism, too.
Blue sparks began to crackle between the tips of his fingers. His lips stretched into an evil grin. I would not give him Goblin so I would have to take Goblin’s place.
Damn, I wished Goblin would come back.
I whirled. The Captain had followed us. One-Eye gulped air. I scooted a few fast steps, which brought the Old Man into the field of fire, too.
One-Eye shoved his hands into his pockets to hide them.
“Ouch!” he said with sudden, quiet fervor. The sparks had not stopped.
Croaker asked me, “He been drinking again?”
“I don’t know when. Unless it was before he got me up. But he’s acting like it.”
“Who? Me?” One-Eye squeaked. “Not me. No way. I don’t touch the stuff anymore.”
I observed, “He hasn’t had time to get set up.”
“That means jack shit. There’s any to be stolen, he’ll find that. You know anyone else who’d suddenly start a fight for no good reason?”
“Ain’t nobody in this outfit like that,” One-Eye insisted. “Unless you count Goblin. Sometimes he... He in this outfit anymore, Captain?”
Croaker ignored him. He asked me, “You planning to take Smoke back out now?”
“No.” That had not occurred to me. Food had.
Croaker grunted. “I need to talk to my staff wizard, here. One-Eye?”
I moved out. What now?
I ate till the cooks began to grumble about some folks thinking they were special.
After I finished I strolled across the snowy slopes trying to calm the storm inside me. The sky promised more snow. We had been lucky so far, I suspected. None of the snows had been heavy and none had stuck long. I spied Thai Dei and his mother, the latter offering a piece of her mind. Still.
It kept them at a distance.
I glimpsed Swan and Blade, far off, trotting somewhere in a big hurry. That meant Lady had come in, or at least would arrive soon. Her advance force had a camp under construction.
South, beyond Kiaulune, a spear of sunlight broke through the overcast, struck Overlook. The whole vast fortress gleamed like some religions’ notion of heaven. I needed to take Smoke over there and get caught up. But not right away. One-Eye and the Old Man still had their heads together. Maybe talking about me.
I strolled downhill toward where Lady’s soldiers were building their camp.
I wondered how Lady and Blade were getting along. He had been her main helper before his defection. He had not let her know what was happening when he did that. I could not see her forgiving him the deceit, however successful its end result.
Crows fluttered over the camp. Maybe Lady was there.
Croaker was right. We had to be paranoid. All the time. If it was not the Shadowmaster spying it would be Soulcatcher or the Deceivers or the Howler. Or Kina herself. Or the Nyueng Bao. Or the Radisha’s agents. Or spies for the priests, or...
Lady had come in without me being told. I had no trouble getting in to see her. That made me wonder if it was going to be easy to get out.
She had questions of her own. “What are we doing now, Murgen? What’s his game this time?”
I halted one step into the presence, mouth open. There had been changes since last I saw her. This was not the Lady with whom I had ridden south. This was not the woman who had seemed so haunted in front of the Dandha Presh. This creature was the Lady of olden times resurrected, a being of such terrible power it had trouble constraining itself in a presentable form.
“What the hell happened?”
“What?” I squeaked. I reminded myself that I was the Annalist. The Annalist is fearless. He stands aside from squabbles within the Company. He is not intimidated by his brothers. He records the truth.
She scared me anyway.
“I want to know—”
“Anything you want to know, you’d better ask the Old Man. I couldn’t tell you even if I was as goofy as Willow Swan. He don’t tell me anything, either. He’s still keeping it all inside his head. You seen that place over there? Worse than the Tower at Charm. He hasn’t paid any attention to it since we got here. I haven’t seen him do much of anything. Longshadow and Howler haven’t done much, either, though.”
“Yeah. And maybe not even very smart considering what shape we’d be in if the Stranglers got him.”
“Less likely than you think.”
“Because of Soulcatcher?”
“She can’t be everywhere any more than you can. And they call them the Deceivers for a reason.” I hoped my voice was not squeaking. I was trying to play the fearless man.
“None of that is why you wanted to see me.”
“No. I’ve got a problem. My dreams are getting worse! They’re really bad now. I want to know how to shut them out.”
“I haven’t found a way. You have to learn to remember what they are. Has Kina been calling you?”
“I don’t think so. It’s more like she’s passing through my dreams and doesn’t notice me if I lie real still. Or maybe I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s nightmares.”
“Tell me about them.”
I told her.
“Those are pretty much the dreams I’ve always had. Mostly I’m on the plain anymore.”
“Are there crows there?”
“Crows? No. There isn’t anything alive there.”
I considered. “Actually, what I said before isn’t quite true. She does seem to be aware of me specifically. The other night I got led through a version of the plain dream where I saw my wife. I talked to Sarie. The implication was there that I could get her back.”
“That’s new. For me the horrors just get worse. I think they’re supposed to overwhelm me eventually.”
I had a feeling she was not telling the whole truth, either. I said, “I find it hard to believe that she could feed me anything worse than what I’ve seen in real life. Knowing what she’s trying to do—”
“She managed to use me, Murgen. Because I thought I knew what she was doing. But I didn’t. She is the Queen of Deceivers. I wasn’t her Daughter of Night at all. I was just a brood mare who was going to carry a Deceiver messiah for her. Don’t make the mistake I made. If she really has noticed you, you be very, very careful. And keep me posted.”
“Did you keep track of times when you thought you sensed Kina?”
“Uh...” I had. But most of the time she came near me I was out with Smoke. “Not very well.” I gave her a couple of times that seemed harmless.
“That isn’t much help. Control your emotions. Your wife would be an obvious way to manipulate you. You have any idea why?”
“I’d guess the standard.”
“Of course. Hints pile up but we never get the story. The Lance of Passion. Only the thing’s never shown any special properties.”
It had, but in a time and manner I could not explain without exposing Smoke. Croaker stuck Howler with it once, just a flesh wound, but the little wizard almost died. “Maybe we don’t really have the Lance. People might just think we do.”
She murmured, “Is this another complicated deceit?”
I asked, “How do I stop the dreaming?”
“Weren’t you listening? You don’t.”
“I don’t think I’m strong enough just to live with them.”
“You learn. Mine went away after the baby was born. But not for long. I think Kina forgot to sever the connection.”
“Maybe Narayan was supposed to do that when he took your daughter.”
“Of course he was.”
“I didn’t mean to remind you of—”
“I don’t need reminding. I remember just fine. Every minute of every hour. And someday soon I plan to discuss it with Narayan, up close and personal.” When she said that she seemed as nasty as Kina herself, though maybe you had to be there and had to know her history to enjoy the full impact. “He’s going to get his Year of the Skulls now. He’s run out of places to hide.”
“You’ve seen Overlook. You think he needs to hide?”
Before she answered Blade shoved his head into the ragged tent. “A Strangler just took a crack at Willow. Willow’s having a little trouble breathing but he’ll be all right.”
“You take the assassin alive?” Lady asked.
I eased toward the exit. Her mood was getting blacker. I did not want her pressing me hard.
Blade grinned. “He’s in perfect health. Though he’d have a heart attack if he could.”
I began easing around Blade. Lady gave me an eyeball-the-bug look that said she thought we ought to talk more later. I might consider staying out of her way. Maybe I had been too open with her already.
I stayed at a distance but watched. Lady’s interrogation methods were deft, vicious and effective. The lesson was not lost on any witnesses.
Within minutes the Strangler admitted that he had infiltrated the camp-follower crowd after our victory at Charandaprash. The order had come from Narayan Singh himself. Willow Swan had been his primary target. Other red rumel men had been assigned other targets. They, too, had concealed themselves among the camp followers. They had been directed by the Daughter of Night herself to be very careful executing their missions. The Children of Kina had become so few that part of their obligation to their goddess now was to preserve themselves for her sake.
Lady knew just how to charm a man into talking. One of those things you learn when you are around forever, I suppose. One of those things people like Longshadow would like to mine out of your head.
She was so effective the Strangler abandoned hope of his eternal reward to tell her names.
I took a walk as Blade began organizing a throat-cutting expedition.
Just to underscore her disaffection with them Lady strangled one of the Deceivers herself. She used her own black scarf, taken from a black rumel man years ago. Every Deceiver knew the tale.
She sent her messages thus.
Crows took off in multitudes.
By way of conversation with Narayan Singh, Lady had the heads of the Deceivers put on lances and carried across to Overlook.
Croaker joined me. “That’s my sweetie,” he said, shaking his head. Like he would have been kinder had he gotten to those men first.
He knew what I was thinking. “A lady doesn’t murder people in polite company.” He grinned.
“What polite company? The Company ain’t polite. And I think it was a very Lady-like thing she did.”
“Yeah.” He seemed almost cheerful about it all.
I spent a good many hours at it but I finally located Sleepy with some base-camp elements from Big Bucket’s special forces battalion. Bucket’s gang was doing the biggest part of the work of hunting Mogaba’s partisans. I told the kid, “Let’s go for a walk. I need to talk to you.” I collected a handful of flat stones to throw at crows if those squawking nightmares got too curious.
“This about what I hope it is?” The boy was excited. I could not remember having been excited about becoming the standardbearer. But I had gotten the job by default. There had been no one else able to do it. It had had to be handled.
“Partly. I got the final word from the Old Man. He says you’re all right with him. He’s leaving the choice up to me. So you’re in, far as I’m concerned. But he wants me to handle the standard myself till after we know one way or the other how it’s going to go with Longshadow. We can start teaching you some stuff right away. And see that you get out of some of the more unpleasant duties so you’ll have time. Especially for working on your reading and writing.”
The boy beamed. I felt a little shitty. “But there’s one special job I need you to do first.” I saw Big Bucket headed our way, probably to hand the kid one of the very jobs I had just mentioned.
“What? I can handle it.”
Absolutely. Which was why Bucket would pick him out of the crowd.
“I’ve got a secret message that needs to get to Taglios. It’s critical. You can take a few guys with you, just in case. Use guys who can ride hard. I’ll give you authorization to use courier remounts.” I raised a hand to forestall anything Bucket had to say. “This has to go through as fast as it can.”
Bucket had heard some of it. “You taking away my best man to carry a letter?”
“Yes. Because it has to get through.”
“This really serious?” Bucket asked.
“That’s why I have him out here where nobody can hear us.”
“Then I’d better go away.” For a fugitive thief Bucket made a very good soldier...
“Hate to lose you, kid.” Bucket shuffled off to dump whatever it was on somebody else.
Sleepy said, “If you loan me your horse I won’t have to take anybody with me. And I’ll get there and back a lot faster.”
He had a point. He had a marvelous point and it had not occurred to me. “Let me think about this.”
There was an iffy side. The Old Man might want me to do something before Sleepy got back. If I did not have my horse he would ask questions.
I was not planning to share my plan with the Captain. If I did he would forbid it.
“I’ll be back in less than a month.”
With my horse he could manage that if he had a butt of iron. He was young and hardy but I did not think anybody was that tough. Still... Nothing was likely to happen around here for at least that long. It would take more than a month for all the stragglers to come in, for our leaders to hash out some kind of plan. It was not possible that Croaker had a plan worked out for Overlook the way he had had for Charandaprash. I was not likely to get caught.
And once the kid had a week’s head start even Soulcatcher would not be able to intercept him.
“All right. We’ll do it your way. One thing, though. The message has to be put into the hands of a specific person. He might not be available right away. You might have to wait for him.”
“I’ll do whatever the job calls for, Murgen.”
“All right. Come down to my...” I could not do that. Thai Dei was sure to overhear something. “No. First, I have to tell you who to find.” I glanced around. Sleepy was one of the few veterans of Dejagore who had not acquired a Nyueng Bao bodyguard, but the Nyueng Bao as a group did keep an eye on him.
“I’m listening.” The kid was eager to prove himself.
“His name is Banh Do Trang. He was a friend of my wife’s. He’s a trading factor who goes back and forth between Taglios and the delta. He sells everything from rice to crocodile skins. He’s old and slow but he’s the only way to get a message into the swamp.”
“You have a whole family—”
“You might’ve noticed how little the Captain trusts those people.”
“There’s good reason not to trust them. Any of them who’re here with us. In this case, any of them but Banh Do Trang himself.”
“I understand. Where do I find this man?”
I gave him directions. “You can tell him who the message is from but only if he asks. He should deliver it to Ky Sahra at the Vinh Gao Ghang temple of Ghanghesha.”
“You want me to wait for an answer?”
“That won’t be necessary.” If the message got through I would get my answer directly from Sarie. “I’m going to go write several copies of the message. You do what you think is best to make sure one of them survives the whole journey.”
Though he had not reacted to Sahra’s formal name I suspected that he understood more than I was telling.
Later, I introduced Sleepy to my horse and made the stallion understand that it was time to earn his oats. The animal was smart enough to be as disgruntled as any soldier asked to get up and bust his butt.
The kid slipped away without anybody but Bucket knowing that he was going.
The Shadowmaster was in his crystal tower, immersed in some arcane experiment. He was seeing no one. The stinking ragbag that contained the Howler was perched atop some of the highest scaffolding surrounding Overlook. Work had resumed, though at a snail’s pace. Longshadow would not quit just because an army was nearby.
The sky was heavily overcast. A chill breeze whined through the scaffolding. Unpleasant weather was headed our way.
“You sent for me?” Singh sounded offended. He was cold for certain.
“It was not a summons, friend Narayan,” Howler replied. The Deceiver’s approach had been impressively discreet. Easy to see how he had become a master Strangler. “An invitation only. Perhaps my messenger failed to relay my exact words.”
A crow whipped past. Another settled nearby. It pecked at crumbs left scattered where workmen had paused to eat. Singh ignored them. There had been crows everywhere since the earthquake. Times were good for the black birds. Howler said, “It occurred to me that you might be interested in what’s been happening outside. I believe Lady has sent you a personal message.”
Singh stared down at the array of severed heads indicated by Howler. Undaunted by the presence of workmen, Taglian cavalrymen had set up their trophies close enough for their faces to be recognized.
Narayan counted heads. His skinny shoulders slumped. Howler’s stance became subtly mocking. “I was right? It is a message?”
“A prophecy. She’s trying to foretell my future. She does these things.”
“I worked for her. And her husband before her. This is nothing.” Howler tried and failed to stifle a shriek. “Seems to me Kina hasn’t taken good care of her children lately.”
Singh did not argue.
“How will you bring on the Year of the Skulls now? How many of your freak brothers are left?”
“You risk more than you know when you mock the Goddess.”
“I doubt it.” Howler controlled another rising scream. Like a man choking down a persistent cough, he could manage for short times. “In any case, I don’t think I’m going to stay around to find out. Longshadow is too damned crazy to do what he has to do. I refuse to be dragged down with him.” He eyed Singh sidelong, watching for a reaction.
Narayan smiled as though privy to a huge and ugly secret. “You fear Lady. You cannot control your functions when you think of her.”
Me, Murgen, ectoplasmic spy, sat on the runt’s shoulder and wondered if these two would be kind enough to take it a little further and give me something I could use. Howler had something on his mind.
Singh started to leave. It was obvious that those heads out there did little to sustain his faith. Unlike his spooky ward he did not enjoy visitations from his goddess. Neither she nor the Daughter of Night had bothered providing explanations for the countless disasters befalling his brethren.
Howler read his mood perfectly. “Makes you wonder about the divine order, doesn’t it?” He screamed before Singh could respond.
He had lost control because he was startled.
I was startled, too.
Swarms of those colored balls from the bamboo poles hurtled toward Overlook. They ripped into workmen and scaffolding and splashed against the wall. They gnawed at men and material and even stained the ramparts wherever Longshadow’s spells were not yet sufficiently dense. Workmen shrieked and fled. Some scaffolding collapsed.
A band of Taglian horsemen appeared out of a ravine, chased the workmen toward their makeshift housing. I raised my point of view as the horsemen withdrew across the rocky ground. I spied Taglian infantrymen crawling forward everywhere. Large numbers were stealing into the laborers’ housing complex from its blind side. Many wore clothing similar to that worn by the locals.
What the hell?
These were Lady’s troops, I was sure. What was she up to? And why did the Old Man keep it from me?
Or was he unaware, too?
The workmen turned back, chased by the soldiers they found in the housing complex, their families fleeing with them, in a wild tangle of panic and confusion.
I got a glimmering then.
They clambered up the surviving scaffolding and took shelter inside Overlook. And a whole bunch of Lady’s men climbed right with them.
Fireballs continued to splash away against the walls and towers. Whole batteries seemed particularly interested in the tower surmounted by Longshadow’s crystal chamber. In some places bits of wall wisped or melted away. In most areas and especially so everywhere Longshadow had the habit of going the protective spells were already too well established for the fireballs even to cause discolorations.
Howler did not understand exactly what was happening. From his angle of view he could not see the nature of the attack. He just saw his associate’s subjects running for their lives. “Forbidden,” he muttered. “Forbidden forbidden forbidden. Longshadow is going to shit rocks. I hope he doesn’t get any ideas about having me punishing these people.”
“You’re so mighty a sorcerer,” Narayan Singh said. “Why don’t you hit back?”
“That’s the point,” Howler said, seeing the possibility Lady wanted him to see. “It’s a trap. Somewhere down there are whole battalions with those devices that throw fireballs. They’re waiting for me or Longshadow to counterattack.”
I took a quick swoop across the countryside. Howler was right. There was a guy behind every bush and rock with a bundle of bamboo poles. Few were contributing to the continuous barrage. Yet.
And what was Lady doing?
When I returned Howler had gotten down out of sight. Narayan crouched. Neither seemed anxious to move. Howler said, “I’m not staying much longer, Singh. If I was you, right now I’d be doing some serious thinking about how I could wake up an ally who’s completely lost his grip on reality. That or I’d think about finding friends who could do me more good.”
I pricked up my ghostly ears. At the same time I turned slowly, using my ghostly eyes. We had several hundred of our men inside Overlook now and neither Howler nor Longshadow realized it.
I wondered if the Old Man knew. I think he would have hinted something so I could watch for a particular reaction.
Narayan asked, “You have a suggestion?”
Howler fought through one of his shrieks. “Perhaps.”
Pretty lights filled the air around me. I almost let myself be distracted. But I managed to hang in there, listening.
Singh asked, “What do you mean?”
“Longshadow is clever but he’s no major intellect. Back when the Shadowmasters took control of the shadows they used to conquer their empire, before they understood the darkness they were tapping, they messed up royally. They broke some seals permanently instead of cracking them temporarily. You get in a hurry, you screw up. To keep things from going completely rotten they had to have somebody watching the Shadowgate all the time. Longshadow volunteered for the job. The others thought that would keep Longshadow out of trouble because he wouldn’t be able to travel. They already knew he was a lunatic. But he was more cunning than they thought. He wove a skein of spells that keeps the Shadowgate closed to everybody but him. His true name is part of the spell complex. That’s probably the biggest risk he’s ever taken and one he’s regretted from the instant he cemented it in place and discovered the price he’d paid for power. The shadows know his name. Every one he lets wriggle through that gate so he can use it wants to devour him. The price he pays is eternal vigilance. If he slips, he dies.” Howler let loose a shriek pregnant with passion as well as pain.
Narayan Singh sensed the difference. “What is it?” he asked.
“It was a stupid thing he did. For power. If he dies and his name fades, the clamping spells unravel and the Shadowgate opens. And that means the end of the world.”
“Do they know that out there?” Singh asked, indicating the besieging army some of whom continued to sneak up the scaffolding unnoticed because that was considered impossible.
“Probably not. Though Lady might reason it out.”
Sneer. We knew it now.
Narayan pondered for a moment, then said, “If all that is true, then I think you cannot leave Overlook. Without your aid, I fear, the Black Company will triumph. Whatever he believes. In which case doom will find you wherever you run.”
Howler shrieked, angry, despairing, seeing the logic of Singh’s observation. “He is not competent to lead yet we cannot wrest command from him.”
“That would do no good, would it? We are slaves of his strategy now. And that requires completion of the fortress.”
Which no longer seemed likely. If many more of Lady’s soldiers got inside, Longshadow’s skeleton garrison would not be able to overcome them.
Narayan continued, “Maybe the general will have an idea.”
Both sides knew Mogaba was alive and directing the partisans. I had had no luck finding him. I had had an equal lack of success tracing Goblin. Smoke was a handy tool but you had to have some reference points when you started. That or an age to go back and forth in tiny jumps so people working hard not to be found could be caught in each of their tricks.
“We’d have to find him.”
Good luck, guys.
“There are ways,” Narayan said. “The Daughter of Night has eyes that can see from afar. And you are correct when you say that something has to be done.”
I agreed with everybody.
Taglian soldiers continued to reach the top of the wall. Most were surprised to have made it. Few had any definite objective once they reached the top.
Again I wondered if the Old Man knew what was going on.
I started to drift away, thinking maybe it was time to see Croaker. The Daughter of Night came to the top of the wall, galloped toward Howler and Singh as fast as her short legs would carry her. Fireballs scarred Overlook’s wall. There appeared to be a purpose to the way they fell but I could not discern it.
More and more soldiers climbed the scaffolding.
The child shrieked at Singh and Howler. Then Howler shrieked.
The news was out.
I tumbled out of the wagon. After a couple of steps I fell to my knees.
“Whoa, there!” One-Eye said. “What’s up?”
“Spent too long out, maybe. Weak.” Hungry and thirsty. I took water from him. It had been sweetened but included nasty additives as well. He must be making something that would turn alcoholic. “Where’s the Old Man?”
“I don’t know. I see Thai Dei, though.” By way of suggesting caution.
I shifted languages. “Lady isn’t playing with them over there. She had troops climb the scaffolding. They made it to the top. There’s a mob of them inside. They’ve just found out on the inside. And some of the Prince’s men are in the ruins of Kiaulune. They were sneaking up to help Lady but they got bogged down. There’re actually people hiding out there now. Some of Mogaba’s bunch. They’re putting up a fight.”
I had passed over the ruins coming back and had been surprised to see the fighting. The presence of fighters there needed examination. It had not been long since the ruins were occupied by only a handful of survivors incapable of helping Longshadow with his construction project.
Mogaba had to be sneaking men in a few at a time.
“I think Croaker went off with one of the patrols looking for Mogaba. What do you need him for?”
“I don’t think he knows what’s happening. I think Lady did this on her own.” Which had been fine when she was in charge of the frontier but not now, when she commanded only a quarter of the army. “I have no idea what his plans are but I’ll bet he don’t want them taken away from him like this.”
One-Eye grunted. He considered Thai Dei and Mother Gota, who was a dozen yards farther away, closing in, bent under a huge load of firewood. Give her credit. She carried her share of the work. One-Eye’s own bodyguard, JoJo, was nowhere to be seen, which was the usual state of affairs. They were two of a kind.
One-Eye said, “I’ll jump in the wagon and find out. You get your strength back.” He went up with a frown, tossing one concerned glance back before he disappeared.
I helped Mother Gota with the firewood. So did Thai Dei. We got it sorted and broken and in out of the wet in minutes. Mother Gota actually thanked me for helping.
She had moments when she could manage courtesy toward an outsider who had not been able to help his bad choice of parents. Those were rare. They seemed to come only when she was feeling particularly good.
I remained courteous myself. In fact, now that I knew what they had done to me and Sarie, I found myself becoming more formal and courteous. I hoped my manners did not make them suspicious. I smirked when I thought about Sleepy. Then I worried about the kid. I had no business burdening him with a personal mission like that.
I started pacing, wondering if I ought to confess to One-Eye or the Old Man.
One-Eye descended from his wagon. He looked like he had seen a ghost. Or something equally unexpected and unpleasant.
I headed his way. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have time to find out.” He sort of sighed his words.
“I found Croaker.”
“All right. So where is he? So what’s the problem?”
“He’s out there talking to the keeper of the crows.”
“Catcher? He went out to meet Soulcatcher?”
“I didn’t track him back. I don’t know if that was his plan. But that’s where he’s at. That’s what he’s doing.”
“Did he look like he was a prisoner again?” I did not wait for an answer. I piled into the wagon.
Silly me, I did not ask One-Eye where Croaker was so I ended up having to track him from his quarters to his meeting with the madwoman.
He did go specifically to meet her. That I determined by taking Smoke in so close that I could hear Croaker’s twin crows squawk instructions. The trouble I did have was after I trailed him through the wilds to his rendezvous inside a snowbound, rocky ravine that was almost invisible beneath overhanging pines.
I did not get close enough to hear what was said. It was a miracle that I got Smoke as close as I did, to assure myself that the Old Man did indeed have a date with Soulcatcher.
The crows were thick there and they sensed me hovering. They became so agitated that Catcher came out to find out what was going on.
I got out of there.
I wondered if Croaker would suspect anything.
I came back out. Thoughtful One-Eye had a bucket of warm tea ready along with some fresh bread from a nearby regimental bakery that was just getting started. I asked, “You get close enough to hear anything?”
“Can’t push that little shit anywhere near her. He’s three-quarters dead but he’s still five-fourths chickenshit.”
“I don’t feel like going after him. It’ll have to wait. In the meantime...”
In the meantime things were happening in Overlook. Flickering lights illuminated the whole region. A dark cloud ribbed with fire boiled up and fell apart in the teeth of the wind. Horns and drums bickered. Fireballs by the thousand pelted the fortress wall.
“In the meantime you might want to take a look at that so you can tell the Old Man whatever he needs to know when he gets here. Which he’s going to be when he realizes that something is happening.”
Not unsound advice. If Croaker was going to make decisions he was going to need all the information he could get. “Keep my loving family away, eh?” I could not keep bitterness from creeping into my voice. One-Eye caught it but he did not ask.
I swallowed one last mouthful of warm bread, settled, grasped Smoke and took him out. The process had become so easy I could practically do it in my sleep. I hardly had to think about where I wanted to go. As long as that was not one of the places Smoke did not like to visit.
Overlook was the proverbial overturned ant’s nest. People were running everywhere. It did not look like anyone knew where they were going. Almost everybody was interested only in not being where they had started. Occasionally Taglians came face to face with the Shadowmaster’s men and fear took its inevitable course.
Some of the invaders had sense enough to stay up on the wall and use their bamboo poles to make life miserable for folks inside Overlook. One lieutenant screamed his head off at the men outside and below, telling them he wanted more poles up here now! His snipers were having great fun tearing the place up. Overlook’s defenders did not dare show themselves.
Some of our men had Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night cornered in a tower. They pasted it with a blizzard of fireballs. The tower held up only because it was layered with scores of protective spells. It was one of Longshadow’s favorite hideouts.
The Howler was on the run. Taglians whooped after him, spraying fireballs around so liberally that the little wizard had no time to counterattack. He screamed as he ran.
More and more men, all lugging bundles of bamboo, got into the fortress.
It could not possibly be this easy. Could it?
Where was Longshadow? He was not taking part.
The Shadowmaster remained in his own high tower, staring south toward the grey plateau, apparently unaware that hell had come calling. How could the man be that preoccupied?
No. He was not that preoccupied. He did know.
Scaffolding all the way around Overlook burst into flames. It was a ferocious fire spell. Flames devoured everything consumable in seconds. Scores fell to their deaths.
Before that ever happened Lady’s men had begun lowering rope and slat ladders obviously created specifically for scaling Overlook’s walls. They were long enough for the climb and each dozen feet they boasted a frame box meant to hold them away from the wall so the climb would be easier for the soldiers.
Longshadow could not see those from his vantage. It would be a while before he understood that his stroke had gained him very little.
Now he was shut up inside without hope of completing his fortress because he could acquire materials for scaffolding only on the outside.
Whatever else, Lady had accomplished that much. She had taken away the one weapon that might have given him an incontestable victory. He could not unleash a flood of shadows to cleanse the earth of his enemies because he could not protect himself from the darkness.
Lady’s soldiers continued entering Overlook, slowly, under the impression they were headed toward victory because the only resistance they encountered initially was that of gravity. Their comrades already held the top of the fortress’s north wall for the two hundred yards between two crystal-topped towers.
Both towers were slagged and blackened, the crystal dead from fireball bombardment.
To my puzzlement Lady had teams outside the wall still hammering away with their bamboo poles.
I had no hope of figuring anything out. Lady had brought this mess on with less warning than the Old Man did his surprises.
Would we have two of them playing this game now?
Actually, I suppose, Lady had been playing all along. I just did not pay attention because she was never in the primary role.
The Prince’s men remained bogged down with the unexpected mob of partisans in Kiaulune. But now he was routing his men around the skirmishing. It looked like there would be plenty more soldiers to follow Lady’s mob up the rope ladders.
The fighting inside Overlook was crueler than I thought it could be. The garrison were all veterans who had been with Longshadow a long time. They might not love him but they were dedicated and determined and convinced that the Black Company would show them no mercy whatsoever. They fought like it. In territory they knew well and their enemies knew not at all. With the help of several clutches of those little old brown men called skrinsa shadowweavers.
Shadows did lurk in the fortress. The shadowweavers knew where they were hidden and how to send them slithering after invaders.
The bamboo poles helped. But not enough to save everybody. The inside of the fortress was all winding hallways and dark rooms and there was no way to know that a shadow was around till it attacked.
I could locate the little old men but I could not tell anyone where they were so they could be erased from the equation.
The deeper the soldiers pushed the worse it got.
Longshadow was not doing much. He had taken that one shot, then nothing. And the Howler... What had become of him?
Howler had eluded the soldiers trying to kill him. He was sneaking around, trying to join forces with the Shadowmaster. Longshadow went on to suffer one of his fits.
It was a big one, so bad he collapsed, thrashed around, tore his clothing, lost his mask, nearly swallowed his tongue. Floor and face alike became soaked with spittle. How had this guy survived to become one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world if he had seizures whenever he was under stress?
Again, though, I could tell no one that he was down and it was a perfect time to kick him in the head.
The protective spells shielding the tower where Singh and the Daughter of Night had gone to ground were particularly strong. The Taglians trying to reach them knew who they were, though. And they were dedicated to their commander. And to the huge reward she had offered for Narayan.
Lady said Singh was worth his weight in rubies if he was delivered alive.
She never offered anything for her daughter.
The sky darkened suddenly. Never have I seen so many crows. It seemed the sun would go out.
I raced to find Croaker and Soulcatcher. Smoke was so far off balance I actually got close to Lady’s mad sister. She was dancing around in a rage, talking to herself in different voices, cursing Lady for having too much initiative, cursing her crows for not getting to the battle and back with information fast enough to suit her. “It’s not time!” she raged. “There’s no conjunction yet! This can’t happen now!”
I hustled off to find Croaker when Smoke began to strain away from the woman. We soared upward, terrifying the crows, leaving a discernible wake through their swarm. I hoped Soulcatcher was not alert enough to catch it.
There had been times when she had seemed aware of my presence. Though that had been on occasions when I was loose from my own place in time, mostly.
Croaker was easy to spot. He was headed for camp at a gallop, trailing a comet tail of crows. His giant black stallion seemed almost to fly.
I rose higher still, to see if there were developments elsewhere in need of noting.
Smoke seemed to enjoy rising up where the eagles soar. We went higher than ever before, until the surface of the earth was so far below that I could not make out such trivial details as men and animals, till only the most vast works of man stood out from the snowy background. The Dandha Presh gleamed like a row of teeth in the north. In the west a pile of dark clouds promised more hard weather for later. In the south the plain of grey stone sparkled as though strewn with newly minted coins. The plain as a whole faded away into grey nothingness, yet at the extremity of vision something loomed within the grey.
All Overlook’s north face seemed to be on fire.
I swooped down there to discover that Howler and Longshadow had gotten together and launched a counterattack against the troops holding the top of the wall. Then Lady had come to the aid of her people. Every man who could work a bamboo pole was doing so, often apparently not aiming at anything.
Amidst all the other lights the air shimmered with fragments of something that recalled the northern lights we had seen ages ago when the Company was way up at the Barrowland. None of these shards was bigger than a platter. They flew around like a swarm of gnats. The air was filled with a sound like sharp steel in rapid motion. The shimmers slashed everything but Longshadow’s most densely spell-protected stone.
Lady was up near the edge of the emergency housing that had been erected for Shadowlander refugees. Her usual gang of worshippers surrounded her, ready to repel any physical attack. She was doing whatever it was that was throwing those blades of light around up there, keeping the defenders under cover and Howler and Longshadow too busy to trouble her or any of her soldiers.
The blades of light did not appear to be under Lady’s direct command but orbited a point she did control most of the time.
A tower collapsed into the interior of the fortress. A pillar of dust, reflecting colorfully, rose to be carried away by the wind bringing the storm from the west.
The outside of the fortress, once so ivory, was a mess of stains. I figured the housekeeping staff would be real put out.
The flying black speck that was the Old Man was almost back to his headquarters. I knew he would want to see me first. Reluctantly I left the great show for flesh.
“What the hell is going on?” One-Eye demanded as I let myself down from the wagon. The show must have impressed him because he was all business. He had food and drink waiting.
“Croaker’s almost here. I’ll tell you both.”
Right on cue the Old Man popped over the nearest rise and hurtled toward us. His mount was still in motion when he left his saddle. He grunted as his boots hit the ground. “Tell me.” He understood that we were waiting.
I told him everything I knew. Including the fact that he was sneaking around with his wife’s sister when the shitstorm hit. He stared over my shoulder toward Overlook the whole time. His expression was cold, stony. I offered the observation that Lady had in no way exceeded her authority within the general orders of the organization. That cold look turned my way.
I had no trouble meeting it. A couple of brushes with Kina can do wonders for the trivial fears of the world.
“You got something on your mind, Murgen?”
“You don’t tell anybody what’s going on, you got to accept it when they go ahead and get on with the job.”
I thought smoke was going to roll out of his ears.
A skinny, mangy mongrel raced past and on the dead run clamped jaws on a startled crow. He got a wing.
All the crows in the world descended on him before he could enjoy his dinner.
“A parable,” One-Eye said. “Observe! Black crows. Black dog. The eternal struggle.”
“Black philosopher,” Croaker grumbled.
Croaker said, “Let’s go have a chat with my esteemed paramour. Where is she, Murgen?”
I told him.
“Let’s go.” But he had to stop and pick up his Widowmaker costume. Which allowed me time to borrow Thai Dei’s grey mare and get a head start. Croaker frowned but did not ask when he caught up. Thai Dei insisted on coming along even though he had to jog now.
He did not keep up.
Neither did I, of course.
If Lady and the Old Man indulged in a head-butting contest it was over before I got there. Maybe I could take Smoke back to look their meeting over. When I got there they were looking up at the tall white wall and deciding how best to exploit the situation.
Lady was saying, “I fear our supply of bamboo poles is growing too small. It’s certain that Longshadow will send shadows against us at least once.” She spoke Taglian. She did not care who heard what she said. And plenty of ears were nearby, including Blade, Willow Swan and the Nar generals Ochiba and Sindawe, none of whom enjoyed my complete trust. Crows were, as always, plentiful, too.
They were turning the ruins of Kiaulune into a major rookery. Good eating there, I suppose, with the cold weather preserving the corpses of the Shadowmaster’s subjects.
Almost everyone threw rocks at the birds. They had become adept at dodging. I suspected resignation would set in eventually and the only time we would enjoy any privacy would be when Lady used one of the spells she had developed for frightening the birds away.
A ripple of astonished disturbance passed through the circling birds. No one else noticed. But I was alert for it because I had been wondering if One-Eye was going to watch.
If anyone else figured this out... You can do nothing in this world without leaving some mark, somehow. If someone else knows what sort of trace you will leave...
One of the crystal tower tops received so many fireballs that it began to ring. The sound started as a soft hum and rapidly swelled to a raging shriek. The tower top exploded in a cloud of smoke and dust and spinning shards that melted holes in the snow and earth wherever they fell. The event so startled everyone that it distracted even Lady for a moment.
In that brief moment Longshadow counterattacked.
The boots of an invisible giant a thousand feet tall began stomping and kicking the men atop Overlook’s wall and those trying to join them. In the moments it took Lady to overcome her surprise and respond, every ladder got stripped away and the bands holding the secured section of wall got scattered. Many fell to their deaths.
Lady stopped the stomping but all efforts to reestablish a ladder link to the men up top failed. Longshadow was fully into the game.
Croaker stayed and watched for the rest of the day. I stayed with him. Nothing much happened.
We walked back. Croaker said, “Overall, that may have been a net gain.”
“We still have people inside. If we can preserve them.”
“We shall make every effort.”
His mind was racing. Something had happened outside whatever playscript he had written and he was trying to incorporate it as a positive. He had no attention left over for little questions like why I was using Thai Dei’s horse while my brother-in-law was hoofing it.
Which reminded me that I needed to check up on Sleepy. The weather and the war had not gone the way I had expected here so his life might not have been comfortable lately, either.
The wind rose dramatically during our walk. Pellets of ice came as precursors of the storm. “I’ve got a feeling this is going to be a bad one.”
Croaker grunted. “Pity she didn’t pull it off this morning. We could be inside and warm.”
“At least it ought to be about the last big one of the winter.”
“That reminds me. How are we doing finding seed grain?”
The storm lingered a long time. A couple times I almost became lost just getting from my shelter to One-Eye’s wagon or Croaker’s shelter. The blizzard brought air so cold we had to move Smoke into Croaker’s place to keep him from freezing. The soldiers suffered badly, though mostly through their own failure to provide themselves with adequate shelter. Captives had warned them that winter here would be much harsher than any they had ever known.
Once again I got to know the joys of sharing quarters with Mother Gota.
Thai Dei insisted she had to get in out of the weather and I have been developing a soft streak as I get older. I allowed it.
She behaved uncharacteristically for Ky Gota. She kept her own counsel most of the time. She stayed out of the way. She helped Thai Dei dig out cold earth and carry it away so we would have more room. She did not say a disparaging word about all the time I spent writing. She worked hard, though I never had been able to criticize her on that account, ever.
She made me nervous. She was almost human. Though she made very little effort to be pleasant or friendly.
The Captain, though, was sharing space with One-Eye and Smoke for the duration. He was much less happy than I was. And I was not happy because I was getting almost no chance to travel with Smoke. When I did stumble over there they would not let me go ghostwalking long enough to do more than check something specific, which was always something on a list they had prepared but claimed not to have had time to check for themselves.
Croaker did not ghostwalk much but he did not let the blizzard and its aftermath keep him from working on other stuff.
Over there in Overlook, Longshadow and Howler were putting in hours as long as ours. And when he was not with his ally Howler, the Shadowmaster had his head together with Narayan.
Singh seemed to have perked up now that he had an almost friend. The Daughter of Night seemed content to ignore everybody and live entirely within herself.
Fighting continued inside the fortress. I almost had to envy our guys who were trapped in there. They were scared all the time but they were warm and most of the time they had enough to eat.
Fresh snow fell every three days. Harsh winds never stopped blowing. I began to worry about the wood we needed to keep going. The snow was so deep it was almost impossible to get around. Nobody knew how to make snowshoes. Probably only three or four Old Crew guys besides me knew what snowshoes were.
I thought it was a great time for Longshadow to send out some of his pet shadows but he failed to grab the advantage. He was not confident that Howler could withstand Lady by himself, nor, I suspect, did he want to turn his back on his partner for long.
The dreams intensified. They diversified as well. I went to the plain of death and the caves of ice and I went to the Nyueng Bao delta swamps to see Sahra and into the hills and mountains behind us where I caught glimpses of Goblin and Mogaba in huddled hiding places trying to wait out the weather.
Those dreams all seemed very real.
Even more real seemed my dreams of Soulcatcher, whose lonesome misery was epic. The place she had chosen to hole up seemed to pull snow and wind both, till the former was deeper than she was tall.
The first two times I suffered these dreams I took them passively. The third night my own presence there seemed so real that I tried tinkering with reality.
The dream did not change but my place within it did.
I experimented much more next night.
The morning afterward, after a not entirely inedible breakfast prepared by Mother Gota, I slogged through the snow to visit the Captain.
“Had to get away?” he asked.
“They’re not being bad. The old woman’s even fixing food that’s palatable. If you’re not real picky.”
“What’s up? Where’s your shadow?”
“I guess he didn’t want to deal with the snow.” The snow was the first thing I had seen that made Thai Dei want to back down. This winter was his first extensive experience with the white stuff.
“None of us do. Anything from the old guy?”
“In this weather? You’re kidding.” He was still sure that Uncle Doj was up to something. Maybe I ought to dream about him. “What I wanted you to know is, my dreams are getting really strange.” I explained.
“Is it your imagination or are you really going out?”
“It feels like being out there with Smoke. Almost. I don’t have any feeling of control. So far.”
Croaker grunted. He looked thoughtful, seeing some possibilities. I saw a few myself.
“What I thought was, I could make a quick circuit with Smoke to see how closely reality conforms to what I dreamed.” I had little trouble accepting the possibility because I had been experiencing such unusual dreams for so long.
“Do it. Without wasting any time.”
“What’s your hurry? This snow isn’t going anywhere for a while.”
Croaker grunted again.
He was turning into a genuine old fart.
The flight with Smoke showed me nothing I had not seen in my dreams. It did not show me Soulcatcher. Smoke still refused to get close. But I passed high overhead and saw that she was indeed caught in a side canyon where the snow was extremely deep.
The weather changed eventually. The snow melted. We came out of our shelters like a bunch of groundhogs. So did the rest of the world. But most everyone was interested in recovering, not in getting into fights.
Fighting did continue inside Overlook, though mostly Longshadow’s soldiers were satisfied to keep Lady’s troops bottled up. Those men were in no hurry to get themselves killed now they were cut off from the outside. They had control of stores enough for a long time and complete confidence that Lady would make every effort to relieve them.
She would. I used Smoke to look in on some of her planning. She had expected any men who got inside to be cut off for a while. She had chosen shock units and commanders she believed would be able to handle the hardship.
The Prince’s division was fighting in the ruins of Kiaulune and in the hills north of us, where Mogaba persisted in harassing the shit out of us. Lady’s division held the ground between the city and Overlook. One of the Captain’s divisions was around the other side, astride the road to the Shadowgate. The other remained in reserve.
Spring was a real threat on the horizon.
I asked Croaker, “You think the Prahbrindrah Drah is maybe going to get tired of getting the honors in all these fights?”
He gave me a startled look. “Am I that obvious?”
“About what?” I looked around. Only Thai Dei was close enough to hear anything.
“You just... It could be his division is the most incompetent.”
“And least reliable?”
“This army will suffer a lot of casualties before we get to Khatovar, Murgen. Correct me if I’m wrong. It seems to me it would be in the Company’s interest if most of those happened outside our own ranks.”
“I trust my Old Division. A lot of those men want to join the Company. Most of them would fight the Prince if I gave the order.”
Lately a lot of Taglians wanted to join the Company. I think most of the applications were genuine. Guys who take the oath always stick. They never take the oath lightly.
The oath is always administered in secret. Recent recruits have been asked to keep their new allegiances to themselves. No one outside the Company had any idea how strong we really were. Some people inside were getting the mushroom treatment, too, if their name was something like Lady. The Old Man was turning paranoia into a fine art. “I understand that. What I’m wondering is, how come Lady is getting the hurt, too?” If something did not end up on the Prince’s back usually it went to her.
Croaker’s shrug told me he was not quite sure himself. “I guess I don’t want her in any position where she has to deal with too much temptation.”
“And the New Division?”
“I wouldn’t ask them to face off with the Prince. They probably won’t ever be ready to take our side in a civil scrimmage.” He looked me in the eye. This campaign had elevated him to a new level of hardness. This was like trading looks with Kina. I did not look away.
Croaker explained, “I’ll deliver on my promises.” He meant that our employers would not deliver. The Radisha, especially, was determined to screw us. The Prince had been out here long enough to become one of the gang. We never did get a chance to work our magic on his sister.
I said, “I spend a lot of time wishing I’d stayed a farm boy.”
“You still having trouble with the nightmares?”
“Every night. But it’s not like it’s a direct attack. I always work my way through and use the opportunity to scout around. Sure as hell ain’t pleasant, though, I’ll tell you that.” Kina, or somebody or something who wanted me to think she was Kina, was in my dreams all the time. My own conviction was that it was Kina, not Catcher. She was still trying to promise me Sahra back.
I wished she would do something about the odor.
“She trying to work Lady, too?”
“Probably.” Almost certainly. “Or maybe Lady is working her.”
“Uhm.” He was not listening. He was concentrating on Overlook now. Fireballs had begun zipping around over there.
Several fireballs flashed in the ruins of Kiaulune, too. The people Mogaba had in there were stubborn. The man really could find good soldiers and could motivate them. The Prahbrindrah Drah had begun razing parts of the ruined city, building by building, salvaging burnables where he could.
It was still cold. At the moment there were eight inches of snow on the ground, atop a couple of inches of hard-packed sleet. This was spring? How many more storms would we have to endure before the weather gave up delivering unpleasant surprises? Longshadow’s surviving crystal turrets sure looked comfy. I wondered why he had not bothered us much lately.
I checked the smoke rising from Kiaulune. I hoped the Prince would save a few nice places where us special folks could hole up in comfort after he rooted out the last partisans.
I was tired of living like a badger.
“What’s going on in there?” Croaker asked, indicating Overlook.
“Nothing’s changed. I don’t understand Longshadow. Not even a little. It’s like he’s determined to destroy himself. He’s in some kind of emotional slough where he just can’t exercise any initiative. You’ve been there, I expect. I have, I know. You know what needs doing but you just can’t move. It doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort. It’s the same sort of paralysis that came over Smoke those last few weeks before he got knocked into his coma.”
Croaker looked thoughtful. “How about you? You feeling like you’re getting enough rest? With these dreams?”
“It isn’t bothering me yet.” I lied. Though I did not need sleep. I needed an emotional respite. I needed a few weeks alone somewhere with my wife.
“Where are your in-laws?” The eternal question. Uncle Doj was still missing.
“Good question. And before you ask, I still don’t have a clue what they’re up to. If they’re up to anything.”
“I worry about so many Nyueng Bao being so close to us.”
“Bad can’t happen, Captain. Not ever. They’re with us as a debt of honor.”
“As you always tell me, you had to be there.”
“That’d sure help you understand.”
He glared at the great white fortress, “You think we could let refugees get through?”
“Put another burden on Longshadow. More mouths to feed.”
“He wouldn’t let them in.” I was still amazed that Longshadow had provided himself with such a small garrison. There were never more than a thousand people inside Overlook, including servants and families and those refugees who had gotten in before the destruction of the scaffolding. There was no mundane way the fortress could have been defended against multiple attacks.
But Longshadow had not planned to deal with the mundane. He had expected to be safe behind countless adamantine spells for as long as he liked.
“I don’t think it’ll be much longer, Murgen. Not much longer at all.”
Fireballs flew around over there. A rising breeze lifted some of those box kites the quartermasters had dragged all the way from Taglios. In this sort of wind they could lift twenty-five pounds to the top of the wall.
That was not what Croaker had brought them along for, he said. But he did not expound.
“I admire your confidence, boss. Yeah. Next year in Khatovar.”
“Next year in Khatovar” had become the sarcastic slogan of the Old Crew these past few years. Most would just as soon have faded away and gone back north. The constant stress of being in service to Taglios suited nobody but Lady. Despite her bouts with exhaustion she seemed to thrive emotionally where raging paranoia was the only sane way of facing reality.
Croaker was not amused. His goals for the Company were not acceptable butts for humor.
His sense of humor had been assassinated by this campaign. Or, at least, it had gone as comatose as Smoke.
“Thai Dei. How about we go for a walk?” When the Old Man got in a mood it never hurt to be somewhere else.
One-Eye is supposed to be my backup as Annalist, at least till Sleepy gets back and learns the ropes. Those few times I have handed him the job, or Croaker did when he was doing the Annals, he proved conclusively that we need Sleepy desperately. The old fart cannot live beyond the moment most of the time. Not that I blame him at his age.
So I was surprised when he bothered to tell me, well after the fact, that he had witnessed something interesting while he was out scouting with Smoke. No, he never wrote anything down and he could not recall all the details now but better late than never, right?
Maybe. Old Smoke was not anchored in time.
He and I drifted back to a moment not many hours after Narayan had visited Howler on the wall and their little chat got interrupted by Lady’s gang of insensitive brutes.
Singh and the Daughter of Night had reached safety in her quarters. The child did not talk much. Narayan was obviously extremely uncomfortable in her presence now, though she was a tiny thing even for her age. She ignored him, settled at a small worktable and turned up the wick on a small oil lantern. The stunner, for me, was seeing her set about the same sort of work that I did almost every day.
Astounded, I watched as her little hand slowly, laboriously recorded words in a language I did not recognize and which, I discovered, she did not read. For as soon as I saw what she was doing I darted around through time looking for an explanation. The writing got started a week ago.
It was the middle of the night. Narayan had stayed up late, praying, calming his soul, trying to reach the state the Daughter of Night achieved when she touched the goddess. He had tried a hundred times. He failed this time as well.
Failure no longer ached inside him. He was resigned. He just wished he could be allowed to understand.
Hardly had he fallen into his dark dreams before the Daughter of Night was tugging at his shoulder. “Wake up, Narayan. Wake up.”
He cracked an eyelid. The child was more animated than he had seen since before she learned that she was to be the instrument of Kina, the hands of the goddess in this world.
He groaned. He wanted to swat her, wanted to tell her to go back to her pallet, but he remained wholly dedicated to his goddess, prepared to execute her will. The will of the Daughter had to be considered an extension of the will of the Mother, however difficult that might make life.
“Yes? What is it?” He rubbed his face and groaned.
“I need writing materials. Pens. Ink. Brushes. Inkstones. Penknives. Whatever is involved. And a big bound book of blank pages. Quickly.”
“But you can’t read or write. You’re too little.”
“My mother will guide my hand. But I must begin my task quickly. She fears we may not have much time left here, in safety.”
“What are you going to do?” Narayan asked, wide awake now and completely baffled.
“She wants me to make copies of the Books of the Dead.”
“Make copies? They’ve been lost for thousands of years. Even the priests of Kina doubt that they exist anymore. If they ever did.”
“They exist. In another place. I have seen them. They will exist again. She will tell me what to write down.”
Narayan considered the notion for a while. “Why?”
“The Books must be brought back into this world to help us bring on the Year of the Skulls. The first Book is the most important. I don’t know its title. But by the time I finish writing it down I will be able to read it and to use it to bring forth the other Books. I will be able to use those to open the way for my mother.”
Narayan gulped air. He was illiterate. Most Taglians were. Like many who were illiterate, he was possessed of a vast awe of those who did read and write. He had seen great sorceries since associating himself with Longshadow, yet considered literacy the greatest witchery of all. “She is the Mother of All Night,” he murmured. “There is None Greater.”
“I want those materials, Narayan.” That was no four-year-old talking.
“I will find them.”
Back in the hours after their escape from Lady’s soldiers, while fighting persisted only a short distance away, the child wrote slowly and Narayan paced and shivered. Finally, she looked up, considered him with those disturbing eyes. “What has happened, Narayan?” She seemed to see right through him.
“Events have surpassed my understanding. The small, smelly one called me to the wall to show me the heads of my brothers displayed on spears. A gift from your birth mother.” He picked at himself, reluctant to go on. I thought maybe the worst torture we could visit on him when we caught him would be a bath. “I cannot fathom what purpose moved the Goddess when she allowed all those faithful sons to fall into the woman’s hands. Almost none of our people remain alive.”
The child snapped her fingers. Singh shut up instantly.
“She killed them? The woman who gave this flesh life?”
“Apparently. I made a bad mistake in not making sure of her when I brought you away to your true mother.”
Not once did the child ever call Lady her mother. She never mentioned her father at all.
“I am sure my mother had an overpowering reason for allowing that to happen, Narayan. Have the slaves clear out. I will consult her.” Several Shadowlander women attended the child most of the time. She treated them like furniture. They were not in fact slaves.
Singh shooed the women while keeping one eye on the girl. She really did seem disconcerted by his complaints.
Singh shut the door behind the last servant. The woman had made no effort to conceal her relief at being away from the little monster. The people of Overlook did not like the Daughter of Night. Narayan settled into a squat. The child was in a trance already.
Whatever other place she went off to she did not stay long. She grew pale while she was there, though, and when she returned she was more troubled than when she had gone.
The odor of death filled the ghostworld while she was away. I gutted it out. Kina did not come.
The girl told Singh, “I don’t understand this, Narayan. She says none of it was her doing. She neither caused their deaths nor allowed them to happen.” The child sounded like she was quoting, though when she did speak she always sounded older than her years. “She was unaware that it had happened.”
Now they both faced a crisis of faith.
“What?” Narayan was startled, frightened. Fear was a constant of life these days.
“I asked her, Narayan. And she didn’t know. The deaths were news to her.”
“How could that be?” You could see the fear shove its cold claws deeper into the Deceiver’s guts. Now the enemies of the Deceivers could murder them wholesale without their goddess even knowing? Then what protection did the Children of Kina possess?
“What fell powers do these killers from the north command?” the child asked. “Are Widowmaker and Lifetaker more than created images? Can they be true demigods walking the earth in the guise of mortals, powerful enough to spin cobwebs of illusion before my mother’s eyes?”
You could see the doubts gnawing at both of them. If those red and yellow rumel men out there could be taken so easily and killed without alerting their protectress, what could save a living saint or even a Deceiver messiah?
“If that is the case,” Singh said, “we had better hope this place is as impregnable as that madman Longshadow wants to believe. We had better hope that he can exterminate all the Taglians already inside.”
“I do not think he’s finished, Narayan. Not yet.” But she did not explain what she meant.
You who come after me, and who read these Annals once I am gone, will have difficulty believing this but there are times when I do dumb things. Like the day I decided to stroll over to Lady’s forward command post to see the fighting with my own eyes instead of watching it from the comfort and safety of the ghostworld or my dreams.
I suspected I had pulled a stupid before I ever got there. I kept stumbling over corpses, most of them just lumps in the snow, slowly emerging. There would be another feast for crows, another celebration of corruption, after the weather turned.
And it was turning.
It was raining, steadily though not heavily. The rain was melting the snow. In places a mist almost as thick as fog hung in the air. I could not see a hundred feet. This was a new experience for me, walking in the rain on thick snow, through a fog.
Actually, it was a journey through silent beauty.
I could not appreciate that because I was so miserable.
Thai Dei was more miserable. The delta was warm even during the winter.
Sleepy was up there enjoying the earlier spring overwhelming Taglios and its environs. I hated and envied the kid now. I should have gone myself.
He had delivered my message to Banh Do Trang. I was a fly on the wall when it happened. The old man took the letter calmly, without reaction or comment except that he did ask Sleepy to wait in case there was a reply. My message began its journey to the temple of Ghanghesha. Banh Do Trang carried the message himself.
Meantime, I was so far away I was in another world. Freezing my ass off.
“Why are we here?” I asked suddenly. I am not sure why. It seemed like a good question at the time.
Thai Dei took it literally. The man could not help himself. He had no imagination. He shrugged. And he kept on being as alert as was humanly possible while trying to keep cold water from running down the back of his neck.
I have never seen anyone as capable of carving his life into exclusive slices. And of giving each slice all the attention it deserved.
He was alert because dumb boy me had decided to take a shortcut through the ruins of Kiaulune. The Prahbrindrah Drah had rooted out all the enemy, had he not?
Maybe. But if that was true who were the snipers we had encountered twice already, slingers who operated from the remains of what had been tenements before the earthquake? My right thigh hurt where a lucky ricochet had gotten me. I was not hot for revenge, just for getting out of there.
I said, “I don’t mean why are we here freezing our butts off. I mean why are we here in this end of the world freezing our nuts off while lunatics without sense enough to surrender sling rocks at us and Croaker and Lady figure it’s a cinch to impregnate an impregnable fortress.”
Thai Dei indulged himself. “Sometimes you don’t have any idea what you’re going on about, do you?” He regained his self-control and returned to character. “You follow the path of honor, Murgen. You strive to pay the debt of Sahra. As do we all. My mother and I follow you because your debt is our debt.”
You lying dicklicker. “Sure. Thanks. And we’ll collect, won’t we? But this weather just drains the fire out of me. How about you?” Like most young men dream of spending their summers in Kiaulune.
“The fog is disheartening,” he admitted. An arrow wobbled between us, sped by someone who did not know what he was doing at targets he could not see well.
“These are some pretty stubborn little bastards,” I said. “Mogaba must have them convinced that we’re going to eat them alive.”
“Perhaps they have seen no evidence otherwise.”
I gleaned the arrow. “You all of a sudden gonna turn talkative and philosophical on me?”
Thai Dei shrugged. He had become more loquacious lately. It was as though he did not want me to forget that he was closer than my shadow.
We entered an area that had been a square before the earthquake. The fog made it impossible to discern any landmarks. “Shit!” was my philosophical take on the situation.
“There.” Thai Dei indicated a glow to our left.
I made out noises that sounded like muted curses in Taglian. Like soldiers grumbling over a game of tonk, a pastime the southerners had adopted enthusiastically.
I headed that way, slush splashing. The stuff was ankle deep now, except where it was deeper, like the place where I put my foot down and it just kept going till I was in up to my knee.
The stumble was a piece of good luck. It started me cursing in Taglian. Some nearby soldiers came to help. They had been about to ambush us, having heard us stumbling around earlier. They recognized me. I did not know them.
Turned out they belonged to the bunch playing cards. They had lost their officer and their sergeant had been slain and they had no idea what to do with themselves so they were just trying to stay out of the way and keep warm. One of our failures as military educators. We have not encouraged innovative thinking at the squad level. Or at any other, for that matter.
“I can’t tell you guys what to do because I don’t know your situation. Try to go up the chain of command, I guess. Find your company commander.”
They explained that their whole company had been sent in to clear the area of snipers. In the fog those snipers had no trouble telling who their enemies were. Everybody who was not them, a luxury the Taglians did not enjoy. The rest of the company was out there in the fog somewhere. “The fire get started on purpose?”
“No, sir. Some guys got excited and used their bamboo. Then we just kind of kept it going.”
“Why didn’t you burn the buildings and roast the snipers out?”
“Orders. These here buildings are all in good shape. The Prince wanted to set up a headquarters here.”
“I see.” Maybe more than the Taglian realized.
The Prahbrindrah Drah already had a headquarters. It was in a better neighborhood boasting much better living conditions.
“Nobody told me,” I said. “I’ll tell you this. Don’t get yourselves killed trying to save a pile of rocks and timber. If the little shits snipe at you, burn them out.” Anywhere in the Annals that city fighting is mentioned one lesson stands out. That one lesson was bitterly reinforced by my own experience in Dejagore. If you worry even a little about preserving property, the guys on the other side will eat you up. When you are in a fight you do not worry about anything but getting your enemy before he gets you.
Missiles kept coming out of the fog. They did no damage but did advise us that the snipers had a good idea where we were.
Given my encouragement the Prince’s troops went off to commit wholesale arson. I chuckled. “I’m proud of me, I am, I am.”
“What must be done must be done,” Thai Dei said, misunderstanding.
There was no need to tell him that I had just scuttled some plan of the Prahbrindrah Drah’s. “You’ll whistle a different tune if we end up freezing our butts off because these assholes waste the whole damned city.” The remains of Kiaulune were a rich source of firewood, not to mention stone for reinforcing earthworks. Fires began to spread. I felt giddy. Is this what power does to you?
I stayed around, directing those men and other leaderless types who accumulated. The snipers were stubborn about not getting caught. Fires became more numerous.
The weather turned colder as evening arrived. Rain came. It turned to sleet and freezing rain that coated everything with crystal. The fog thinned. As visibility improved I discovered that the fires were more widespread than I had thought. Out of control and spreading, they soon yielded enough heat to turn the sleet back to rain.
Smoke began to replace the fog. I told Thai Dei, “We’re going to have to start hauling firewood all the way from the mountains.” I sent word out not to start any more fires. It did not do much good.
The soldiers were so jumpy they kept plinking at each other with the bamboo poles.
Mogaba would get a good laugh out of this one.
Full night arrived. I had been having too much fun. I did not want to be down in Kiaulune after nightfall. The dancing firelight only made me more nervous. What a time for the Shadowmaster to loose his pets.
“Did you see that?” I demanded.
“What?” Thai Dei sounded righteously baffled.
“Can’t swear to it. My eyes aren’t what they used to be. But...” But I did not need to tell Thai Dei I thought I had seen Uncle Doj flickering through the tricky light as though he was a shadow himself. A troll-like figure had been right behind him. Mother Gota.
Interesting. Very interesting.
“Let’s go for a walk.” I headed the direction my in-laws were going. Thai Dei followed. Of course. “Thai Dei. What do you really know about Uncle Doj? What moves him? Where is he going?”
Thai Dei responded with one of his all purpose, neutral grunts.
“Talk to me, dammit! I’m family.”
“You are Black Company.”
“Damned straight. So what?”
“I admit I ain’t brown enough, short enough, skinny enough, ugly enough or dumb enough to be a genuine swamp-loving master race Nyueng Bao De Duang, but I did just fine as Sarie’s husband.” I overcame the impulse to throw him up against a handy ruin and slap the pigshit out of him till he explained what they thought they were doing, stealing my wife and pretending she was dead.
In recent days I had found I could not help rubbing Thai Dei’s nose in Nyueng Bao racism.
“He is a priest,” Thai Dei confessed, after considerable reflection.
“Oh! You surprised me there, brother. Pretend that I’m not stupid. Not jengal.” Which is a Nyueng Bao word meaning something like “congenitally deformed, brain-defective foreigner.”
“He is a repository of old things, brother. Of old thoughts and old ways. We were a different people from a different land, once upon a time. Today we live where and how we must but among us are those who preserve ancient skills and customs and knowledge. As Annalist of the Black Company you should be able to understand that mission.” Maybe.
Accumulated precipitation had filled the streets with slush. It was only inches deep but it recalled the water-filled streets of another city in another time. This is a nightmare, I told myself. This is a torment from Kina, maybe. The smell is here but this is not Dejagore. Here we will not eat rats and pigeons and crows. Here no one will indulge in dark rituals requiring human sacrifice.
I studied Thai Dei. He, too, seemed to be remembering when. I said, “At least it was warmer than this.”
“I remember that, brother. I remember everything.” Meaning he recalled why so many men of such a proud race had attached themselves to the Black Company in almost subservient positions.
“I want you to remember those days always, Thai Dei. We were trapped in hell but we survived it. I learned there. Hell no longer has any surprises for me, nor any secrets from me.” A bit of veiled criticism and an exposure of the bedrock philosophy that continues to get me through.
I have been to hell. I have done my time. This dark goddess Kina could not throw anything at me worse than the things I had seen already with my own eyes.
I scurried around but never caught another glimpse of Uncle Doj. If that was him that I saw. Thai Dei and I stayed in the streets, spreading encouragement while trying to forget our holiday in hell.
The little shit would not give up another word about Uncle Doj.
Croaker was not pleased. “I don’t want you pulling a stunt like that again, Murgen. There was no reason for you to put yourself at risk like that.”
“I found out the Prince is up to something.”
“Great big old hairy-assed deal. We knew that. Had to be.”
“I saw Uncle Doj sneaking around down there, too.”
“You’re always worried about my in-laws.”
“Not as much anymore.”
His tone alerted me that, once again, he knew something he was not going to share. Or he had an angle he meant to keep completely secret. “What happened?”
“We reached a milestone. And no one noticed. Which puts us at a hell of an advantage.”
“And you’re not going to tell me?”
“Not a word. A little birdie might hear.”
“Why were you visiting the bird lady?” I made a habit of asking like he used to ask me about Uncle Doj. He was not pleased.
He offered no answer. “You have a job to do. Two jobs, in fact. Stick to those. If I lose you I’ve got nothing left but One-Eye.” He eyed me hard.
“Wouldn’t that be awful.”
He caught my sarcasm. “When will Sleepy be ready? I haven’t seen him around.”
“Neither have I.” I did not lie, did I? “I’ve been mapping the inside of Overlook.” Which I had, whenever there were no other demands on my time. I had not put much effort into following up on the people I was supposed to watch. “You know how deep into the earth its basements go?”
“No. And neither do the crows.”
He was probably wrong about that. Soulcatcher had been a prisoner in Overlook’s deeps, once upon a time. But the point got through. Our days of paranoia were far from over.
“Gotcha. Think I’ll go for a walk.”
I found One-Eye seated across the fire from Mother Gota. They were not talking but them just tolerating each other was an epic amazement.
Was the little wizard trying to sell her on Goblin? He did have that sneaky look, like he was up to something really villainous.
I went on to One-Eye’s dugout. My tagalong sat down beside his mom. She dished him up some nasty imitation Nyueng Bao chow. He ate in silence.
I slipped through the ragged blankets into One-Eye’s den. It stank in there. I do not know who he thought he was fooling. There was no mistaking the smell of the mash. The results would taste as bad as that mess smelled. He put in anything he thought would ferment.
Smoke lay sprawled on a cot. One-Eye had gotten Loftus and his brothers to make it. The comatose wizard had the best bed in the province. I settled into the chair beside it, wondering if it would be possible to manage without him entirely.
I would experiment later, I decided. At the moment reliability was important.
I had to get him out of that hole, though. As soon as I could sneak him over to Croaker’s. Who would shit a brick.
I went after Sleepy first. I found him still waiting at Banh Do Trang’s city place. I followed Trang into the swamp. The old man appeared troubled. I could not tell why. In present time he was still far from the temple where Sahra was getting bigger by the minute.
It was scarcely a week since I had seen her yet she seemed to have swollen dramatically. I recalled the jokes the grown-ups had cracked about pregnant women when I was a kid. They did not seem that funny now.
I wanted to be there even though I knew my presence would be valueless. Babies get born every day with no help from their fathers and, everywhere I have ever been, no help wanted. At birthing time women stood united and wanted no men around.
Once again I found a time when Sahra would be alone, then tried to materialize in front of her. My luck held. It was bad again. I managed only to frighten her thoroughly.
“You’ll know soon,” I tried to say, but managed only to scare the swallows in the thatch overhead.
I could be patient. This game was all in my hands now. Uncle Doj and Mother Gota did not have a clue that I knew.
I went to check up on the Radisha Drah.
At a glance I had to say she regretted sending Cordy Mather off to check up on us bad boys. She was a cranky old witch without her playtoy.
People noticed, too. Not a good thing, with priests always looking for an angle.
More work for me, keeping an eye on them. Have to talk it over with Croaker, see if he wanted to make a project of it.
I saw nothing else of interest in Taglios. The victory at Charandaprash was general knowledge now. People of all castes and religions, rich and poor, supporters of the Black Company or its enemies, apparently took it for granted that Overlook would come next, easily. I found no fear of the Shadowmaster anywhere I looked.
Looked like Taglios was headed for peacetime and its good old back-stabbing ways—perhaps prematurely.
I moved back south, tracing Cordy Mather.
Mather must have been disgruntled. He had not taken his assignment to heart. He and his companions had not yet reached Charandaprash. I did not take time to explore but they seemed to be waiting for good weather. And nobody was any more eager than Mather to get to the fighting.
They thought the war was won, too. Why go over there where people were still killing each other? A guy could get hurt! Not to mention the cold, the primitive living conditions, the lack of entertainment and gourmet cuisine...
I came back over to the cold and bloody side of the Dandha Presh, zoomed around looking for signs of Mogaba, Goblin, the forvalaka, Soulcatcher. Smoke could not, or would not, find any of them, though Catcher’s general location could be determined by the density of crows.
She had not moved from where I had spied her meeting with the Old Man.
Smoke would approach the Shadowgate no more closely than ever before.
Damn! Almost the entire strength of what Croaker called his Old Division was established now in the gullies and rocky slopes of the ground between Overlook and the Shadowgate, astride the road south to Khatovar. Some of those fools, posted up close to the Shadowgate, kept sniping at what they thought they saw on the other side. A few fireballs always drifted through the chill air.
I wondered if the Old Man knew they were doing that. I wondered if it was a bright idea. It might take only one badly aimed fireball to cause the collapse of the gate.
I went back into Overlook. It was always an adventure ambling through that fortress’s dark corridors. As frightened as Longshadow was of shadows you would think that he would keep the whole inside brightly lit. I suppose he realized that was impossible and was satisfied to live in his crystal chamber and surround himself with intense light only when he had to move around. He chose not to go out very often.
The Howler, Narayan and the Daughter of Night had free run of the place. They were not afraid of its dark corners. They never ran into anything scary. The child had grown contemptuous of Longshadow’s fears.
Neither she nor Narayan had witnessed all that could be done by the Shadowmaster’s pets.
Neither had we, I feared.
Lady had established a factory for replenishing spent bamboo poles. She had been confident that we would need them. I was afraid she was right.
Stone shudders. Eternity sneers while it devours its own tail. This cold feast is almost finished.
Even death is restless.
The walls are bleeding.
In the darkness of the grey fortress it is hard to distinguish but dribbles of cardinal venous blood have begun to leak from the cracks between stones. It glistens in the light rising from the abyss. Small shadows squabble around it hungrily.
One crow watches.
The mist from the abyss has begun to fill the fortress. Half the tilting throne is covered. The throne is tilting precariously now. It looks like the figure there would slide away into the mist if it were not pinned in place.
The throne slips another millionth of an inch. A groan rises from the tortured figure. Its blind eyes flutter.
One crow cackles.
There is no silence. Stone is broken.
Where there is even a crack life will take root.
Light will find a way in.
I told the Old Man about the troops shooting over the Shadowgate. He scowled blackly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He bellowed for a courier. He sent out a strong suggestion to our brothers with the division to the south. “No crows around here,” I noted.
“One-Eye custom-built me a spell I can use to make them get hungry and go away for a while. But not forever.”
I got the hint. “I don’t think we’re doing enough to support Lady’s men inside Overlook.”
Croaker shrugged. “I’m not concerned about Overlook anymore. Much.”
“What? Not worried about Longshadow? Howler? Narayan Singh and your... the Daughter of Night?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not indifferent. They just don’t matter as much as they did.”
“I must’ve missed something. What’re you saying?”
“I’m just suggesting it, Murgen. But we could go on south now. If we wanted. If I’m right about the standard.”
“Uh...” I said. No flies on me.
“The standard has to be the key to the Shadowgate. I think we could walk right through and keep on going, without any danger, as long as we carry the standard.”
“Uh...” I said again, but this time I had a few more thoughts. “You mean we could just get everybody together, say screw you to the rest of this mob, and trot off singing merry marching songs?”
“Exactly. Maybe.” So he was not completely sure.
“Wouldn’t that leave a lot unsettled? Not to mention risk opening the Shadowgate the wrong way?”
“Longshadow is the master of the Shadowgate. He can keep it sealed.”
“What if he can’t?”
Croaker shrugged. “We don’t owe anybody... You just got finished telling me the Radisha is still fixing to screw us. The Prahbrindrah Drah was up to something down here. Howler is no friend of ours and Catcher has been helping me only because she thinks that’ll help her get an angle on Lady.”
“I’ve got a wife out there, Boss. And she’s got a bun in the oven. Not to mention Goblin and his crew. Whom I can’t find, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, on some mystery mission from you.”
“Hmm? Didn’t think about that. There’s no mystery. Goblin’s job is to be forgotten. Then he’s supposed to be in the right place if the Prince runs out on us. Or decides to pull some other stunt where we could use some help that comes from the blind side.”
I grunted. It might be true. Or it might only be what he wanted me to think. I set it aside. I could answer the question using Smoke if I was determined and clever and felt any real need. I asked, “What about Singh? You just going to walk away from him?”
I did not believe Lady would accept that. It was hard to tell what was going on inside her head but I did think that no one and nothing would make her walk away while Narayan Singh remained in good health.
“I’ve been letting things work themselves out. I’ll go on doing that for a while. But when the moment comes I won’t hesitate to take the Company on down the road to Khatovar.” His voice turned cold and hard and confidently formal.
I was getting angry. That was not good. I told him, “I think I’d better excuse myself now.”
“Just in time, too.” He flashed a wan smile.
One of his huge crows had shoved its beak into the room. If it was possible for a bird to look puzzled this one did.
It also smelled. It had lunched in the ruins.
I asked One-Eye, “How much weight should we put on our contract with the Taglians?”
“Uhn?” He gave me nothing but the puzzled grunt. He wanted me to go away so he could play with his still.
“I mean are we obligated to keep our part of the bargain until they actually try to screw us?”
“What’s your problem?” He gestured. There were no snoopy beaks over here.
“The Old Man’s talking about walking on past Overlook. Forgetting Longshadow and everything else. Leaving them to enjoy each other while we head on south.”
That idea startled the little wizard. He stopped trying to get rid of me. “He figured out how we could do that?”
“He thinks maybe. I don’t think he knows for sure. But I do believe he’s willing to test it the hard way.”
“That’s not good. That could bring on a shitstorm the likes of which... Like nothing we can imagine, probably. Like something out of the myths.”
“I thought so, too. He could be just shooting his mouth off. But it might be a good idea to remind him that we still haven’t read those three missing volumes of the Annals. I’ve got a feeling we shouldn’t overlook that.”
One-Eye does not have a quarter of my faith in the Annals, nor a tenth of Croaker’s, but he grimaced. “A good point. I’ll remind him.”
“Subtly? You hit him with a hammer, he tends to get stubborn.”
“Subtly? You know me, Kid. I’m slicker than greased owl shit.”
“I do know you. That’s what scares me.”
“I don’t know what’s got into your generation. You got no trust. You got no respect.”
“And not much patience with bullshitters, either,” I admitted. “I’ve got journals to write. Not to mention worries to worry.” And food to eat. I was hungry again. Much as I ate when I was walking the ghost I should have gotten too fat to waddle.
I joined my in-laws beside their fire. Mother Gota dished me up a bowl of whatever it was she kept simmering in her pot. Nobody said anything. I had not talked to them much lately. They had begun to suspect that I was not real social anymore. I wondered why the old woman would not do her cooking inside. Thai Dei and I had set her up a whole private suite in our ever-expanding dugout but she would go inside only when the weather turned foul or it was time to sleep.
Thai Dei did most of the work on our shelter. There was not much else for him to do. He was not involved in the schemes of his mother and Uncle Doj.
“Thank you,” I told Mother Gota as I finished. “I needed that.” I could not compliment her on her cooking. If ever she did screw up and make something palatable she would not buy the real thing. She never did claim any culinary skills.
“You,” she said, initiating conversation, which she did rarely, “Bone Warrior, you are wary of crows? They are significant?” Her Taglian was abominable. I spoke Nyueng Bao much better but she would not do me the courtesy. I suppose that would, somehow, lend legitimacy to my relationship with Sahra.
I stopped trying to make sense of Mother Gota’s thinking years ago.
I responded in Nyueng Bao. “They carry messages sometimes. They spy. We know this. Mice and bats do the same. Those who use the animals aren’t our friends.”
I exceeded myself telling her that much. Croaker would not be pleased. But I was fishing. It would be nice to find out what she knew or suspected. Sometimes she just could not help showing off.
“I have seen owls in the night, too, Stone Soldier. They do not behave the way owls should.”
I grunted. That was news. And it told me that if owls were being used and no one else had noticed, then the old woman was a lot sharper than I had suspected.
“Last night many crows came and went from the shining fortress.”
I looked at her more closely. Last night. While Thai Dei and I were in town with the lost boys. While she was traipsing through the night with Uncle Doj. She had seen something that I missed. Maybe.
Crows had been scarce near Overlook lately. Longshadow had taken a dislike to the dark harbingers. His crystal turrets were surrounded with nasty little spells that worked like trapdoor spiders, striking when birds came too close.
“That’s interesting,” I said. “That might be something new.”
“There have been crows before. But never so many.”
“Uhm.” What went on in there last night that Soulcatcher found so interesting? I had seen nothing abnormal today. It might be worth checking.
Maybe I was being worked. Maybe Uncle Doj and Mother Gota were bound to start checking out the oddities they had noticed about my behavior in recent months. Maybe they were getting ready to do whatever Croaker suspected they were going to do. If he did anything more than just suspect.
He suspected everybody of something.
“The one who flies went out last night, Soldier of Darkness.”
“Ah.” She was trying to manipulate me. She knew I hated those enigmatic titles first employed by her father, Ky Dam. The old Speaker never explained them and Mother Gota would not waddle where her dad had refused to tread. “That is interesting.” There had been no aerial sightings of the Howler for a while. He liked to use spells of concealment when he was aloft, though.
She wanted me to ask questions so she could toy with me and frustrate me. The information she had given was all I was going to get. Right now.
I refused to play her game. I turned to Thai Dei. “Did I just get promoted to honorary member of the tribe?”
He shrugged. He seemed mildly surprised that his mother had told me anything at all.
I did not rush right over to visit Smoke. If that was what the old woman wanted I meant to disappoint her in a big way. I tended to chores, helped Thai Dei work on our dugout, ate again, drank plenty, worked on the Annals for a while. I could change nothing that had happened during the night. And whatever that was, it had not been so earthshaking that it was an immediate threat.
One-Eye actually made it easy. Shortly after sundown he came over with a clay pot. “Soup’s ready,” he said. He sloshed the pot’s contents. The stink of a really bad beverage quickly filled my dugout.
“All right!” I got up and followed him into the darkness.
“That was a stroke of luck, you showing up just then,” I told One-Eye. “I needed to get away.” I relayed what Mother Gota had told me.
“How would she know that?”
I told him about spotting her and Uncle Doj during the night. “Maybe they spotted me, too.”
“Thai Dei could’ve told them.”
“You think it’s important?”
“They make a special point of making sure I know, I’d better check it out. I didn’t notice anything when I did my routine snooping.”
One-Eye grunted. He looked thoughtful. “Goes to show you. No matter how well set up we are we’re going to miss stuff because we don’t know what to watch for.”
Which was true. Things could be right there in the open and even with the advantage Smoke gave me I could miss them if I did not know to look.
There just was not enough time to look everywhere all the time.
I suggested, “Why don’t you take some of your magic potion over to my in-laws? Screw up their thinking for a while.”
“Thought they didn’t touch the stuff.”
“They’re not supposed to. But I’ve seen Thai Dei take a tummy-warmer a time or three, to be sociable, and his mother would’ve developed a taste for it if Uncle Doj hadn’t been there most of the time we were in Taglios. She’d sneak a few pints whenever he was away. She hasn’t had a chance since we’ve been on the road.”
“Very interesting.” The little black man started rustling around. “Tell you what. I’ll just go over there and keep them company while you’re out. I’ll tell them you’re working.”
He left before I finished my preparations. He lugged a slimy old wooden bucket with him. I muttered, “I got to get him to talk to Swan.” Willow Swan made bad beer, too, but he did know a little about the brewer’s art. Compared to One-Eye’s product Willow’s was ambrosia.
There was very nearly a warmth to Smoke when I took hold of him, as though some part of him sensed that he was no longer alone and was pleased. I took him directly to Overlook, sliding backward in time as we went, avoiding the ruins where the fires burned so I would not see myself. I had to shuffle forward and backward to find Mother Gota’s crows. They were visible only briefly and were never obvious. They streaked in from the north, high above the fortress, then plummeted into Overlook like falling stones. There were no more than a dozen so any message they carried, either direction, would be severely limited. I expected greater numbers from what my mother-in-law had said.
I followed the last one down. The flock did not go near Longshadow’s glowing towertop, where the Shadowmaster labored late over some esoteric text. They plunged into the darkness of a courtyard and entered the fortress through a door standing just a crack ajar. They muttered among themselves, uncomfortable with where they were. A sharp cry, broken off, nearly spooked them.
A voice whispered. I could see nothing but the vaguest shape in the darkness but recognized the Howler’s aborted cry. I did not understand a word he said. I did not understand the crows, who took turns making noises that might have constituted a message. For me the critical piece of information was not included in the body of the message but in the existence of the message.
Soulcatcher and Howler were communicating.
I ran back in time another hour. Howler did nothing but sit there and wait. I jumped forward, planning to bracket him till I found something else interesting.
I had to advance only a few minutes beyond the arrival of the crows.
They stayed only briefly. Then Howler rustled back into the darkness. I drifted along behind him, tracking him by ear and by smell. Even in the ghostworld Howler had an air about him.
He stayed in darkness, away from routes Longshadow might use, till he reached a particular door. He knocked, which surprised me. Howler was the kind of guy who just invited himself in.
Narayan Singh opened the door a crack. Howler fought down a shriek. He was developing a talent for silence. Singh stepped back and allowed him to enter. Howler slipped in like a diminutive Deceiver on a deadly skulk. “It’s time,” he whispered.
Time for what?
Singh knew. He went to the Daughter of Night immediately. The kid was hunched up in front of a small fire, fanatically transcribing that first Book of the Dead. Looked to me like she was almost done. But who knew how long a book it was?
Singh seemed unsure how to approach the girl. He seemed unsure about a lot lately. He was close to superfluous and knew it.
Lady always would have a use for him, though.
He got the girl’s attention. Gods, she was getting spooky! There was an aura about her, something you might call a glow of darkness. In that light her eyes seemed to shimmer like those of a big cat stealing toward your dying campfire. You were drowsing and she was hungry.
“It’s time,” Narayan told her, his whisper barely strong enough to stir the air.
The child nodded curtly. She made a tiny gesture. Narayan bowed, backed away.
There was no doubt who was in charge here, who ruled and who obeyed. Nor any doubt that she was herself controlled by a determined power. She extended her writing hand to Narayan for help rising. It was a claw she could not relax. Her legs were too stiff to unfold on their own. For a moment I pitied her, forgetting she was no true child.
Howler returned to the corridor. He drifted along ahead of Singh and the girl, scouting. Those two insisted on a lamp, which troubled Howler deeply. He muttered and fussed the whole time they were doing their sneak.
By a tortuous route that avoided Longshadow, the garrison and the enclave still held by Lady’s soldiers, Howler led them to an unguarded piece of wall overlooking Kiaulune. Fires were burning down there. I was down there with Thai Dei, cold and disappointed with myself for having been dumb enough to insist on the eyewitness view.
I did not tag along in real time. I skipped forward, compressing events. Howler’s destination was a small carpet concealed atop a domeless tower otherwise not in use. It was a new carpet, smaller than those we had seen before, black as the night around us. More evidence that you cannot know everything that is happening unless you want to spend every minute watching. I had not seen Howler working on this carpet.
With no words exchanged the three lifted it, walked to the edge of the parapet, lockstepped right off into space. They clambered aboard as they fell. Narayan moaned softly, eyes closed. The Daughter of Night was not impressed.
Howler took control in time not to smear them all over the rocks and wreckage below. He began sliding gently along just a few feet above the ground, trying to keep solid objects between himself and Overlook.
I took a quick look at Longshadow.
The Shadowmaster was restless. He had left his studies to stare vaguely toward Kiaulune. He sensed that something was happening but could not determine what.
Howler was playing around behind his ally’s back.
I almost lost the little shit. I had to go back to the moment I left him to pick him up again. Soon afterward he drifted past a band of Mogaba’s guerrillas in the ruins. The guerrillas did not see him but sensed him and panicked, thinking one of the Shadowmaster’s pets was on the prowl. The racket they made drew the attention of nearby Taglians. The soldiers saw something shadowy drifting through the darkness. They wasted no time getting off a volley of fireballs.
Howler changed tactics.
He put on a burst of speed and employed a spell of concealment neither of which he wanted to do that near Overlook. I would have lost him then had not chance favored me.
A wild fireball clipped the corner of the invisible carpet, which began to smolder. The spell of concealment did not include the glow as long as I stayed close.
Howler hauled ass. But he did stay so low that brush scraped the underside of his carpet. At one point he ploughed through some tents and clotheslines in one of the Prahbrindrah Drah’s division camps. He was less concerned about being noticed by our side than by his own.
The race brought on a mild sense of exhilaration. I did not notice it immediately. Then it hit me that I was feeling more emotion than usual. Eventually I realized what I was feeling was some feeble spillover from Smoke.
Sometime during the flight we passed close enough to Uncle Doj and Mother Gota to be noticed but I saw no sign of them. We also swept over my own headquarters close enough to startle the sentries and horses.
I was not entirely surprised when Howler headed for a certain snow-choked canyon. Smoke did not notice until we were close enough to watch Howler land in front of a waiting Soulcatcher amidst an explosion of terrified crows.
In my amusement at the birds I relaxed just a little bit. And Smoke rebelled. She is the darkness.
That was not me. But it did not happen again.
I backed out and up and away, content to go back to my flesh with the knowledge that Howler and Soulcatcher were up to some treachery that included Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night.
The mood Smoke exuded now, if so feeble a thing could be called a mood, was terror.
And terror was out there roving the night, though it was not the terror that haunted my spirit steed.
I caught a whiff of corruption as I moved toward my flesh. I saw nothing. I stopped, experimented, moved in a direction away from the invisible source.
Maybe it caught a whiff of me. The stench grew stronger suddenly. I felt a sensation as of something onrushing. Light flickered in the ghostworld. I saw Kina’s hideous face for an instant, looking directly toward me. But her eyes were blind. Her nostrils flared as though she was trying to catch my wind.
Smoke’s terror might have been what she smelled. He fled in total panic. She is the darkness.
It was more feeble this time but it was there. It was not my imagination.
The Old Man did not seem surprised to hear that Soulcatcher might be up to something with Howler. “I wasn’t counting on it but it seemed like a possibility,” he said. “They’ve worked together for ages. We may have Longshadow by the nuts.”
“Somebody better have him by something if he controls the Shadowgate. The other thing is...” How could I put it?
“Smoke is showing signs of personality. I think.” I told him what had happened.
“Damn! We don’t want him waking up now.” He thought for a while. “I don’t see how we can stop it if it’s happening.”
“Better see One-Eye about that.”
“Send him over. Wait! Don’t leave. Tell me about the part of the fortress where Singh and the girl hide out.”
It turned out this was more than a passing interest. He wanted maps.
I had that part of the place charted already. All I had to do was get the drawings from One-Eye’s dugout. I brought the little wizard along. He kept grumbling about being wakened in the middle of the night. Once the Old Man had what he needed I shut the curtain to Smoke’s alcove and went off to bed, leaving them to their schemes.
I did not escape Kina just by getting back to my flesh. She was waiting in my dreams. No sooner did I lie down than I found myself in the place of bones. Sahra was waiting.
I had no trouble recalling that she was an illusion. She looked nothing like the Sahra who lived so miserably at the Vinh Gao Ghang temple. This one was too young, too unworn, despite her pallor and the neck crook characteristic of a Deceiver victim.
I had begun to suspect that Kina was slow and unimaginative, although extremely powerful. How had she gotten the angle on Lady?
It was true Lady had not known what she was up against. And ignorance is a chink in the armor a knowledgeable enemy can exploit at will. And, of course, Kina was Queen of the Deceivers.
It no longer mattered how Kina had fooled Lady. What mattered now was that she did not fool me.
That thought left me unable to pretend that I was being deceived. I was not kind to the false Sahra.
Her flesh corrupted and melted right before me. The perfume of Kina, which was the stink of dead bodies, assailed me. A shadow in the grey distance coagulated into a four armed black dancer a hundred feet tall whose pounding feet threw up clouds of bone dust as she stamped and whirled. Her fangs dripped venom. Her eyes burned like dark coals. Her jewelry of bones clattered and rattled. Her breath was the breath of disease.
The Daughter of Night rode upon her shoulder like a small second head. She was excited as a child making her first trip to the county fair.
Kina was not pleased with Murgen.
Armbones lifted out of the litter, grasping with fleshless fingers. Sahra’s skeleton stumbled toward me. I willed myself away and, behold!, I drifted up and backward a few feet. I willed myself again and moved again, not far, amazed that I had control and bewildered because I had not tried to exercise it before.
Kina stopped dancing and stomped toward me. Her fangs grew longer. Her six breasts dripped poison. She put on another pair of arms. The Daughter of Night bounced excitedly on her shoulder, immune to the lure of gravity.
I willed myself away.
I had control but that was not my world. I could not run away faster than the world’s creator. A great gleaming, taloned black hand swooped down. I dodged. A claw brushed me. I spun ass over appetite into darkness.
And I was in the cavern filled with old men caught in spiderwebs of ice. I drifted along past faces I not only knew I knew, I remembered the names that went with them.
I felt a panic like what you would feel if you were closed up in a small place in the dark. A buried-alive panic. I did not let it manage me. I tried, again, to manage myself and found I could move along the cavern if I willed it, like I did when I was walking with Smoke. I moved a whole lot slower here, though. I tried moving out through the walls. Like the real world, and unlike riding Smoke, I was constrained pretty much by physical rules. My only way out of the cavern would be forward or back. Which did not make much sense if I was dreaming and had gotten in there without following any complicated route.
Was it possible physical laws operated only when I was in control? Could it be that I was unable to walk through walls because I never learned the knack in daily life?
I decided to go forward, up the slope of the cavern floor, because that is what I always did in the fragments of dream I remembered. As I did so I became aware of an inchoate anger growing behind me, as of something hunting that was frustrated. I did my best to speed up.
There was more in those ice caves than old men. There were more old men, none of them known to me. There were treasures. There was junk, like everything that ever fell down a crack ended up there. There were books.
Three huge tomes bound in worn, cracked dark leather rested on a large, long stone lectern, as though waiting for three speakers to step up and read at the same time. The first book was open to a page three-quarters of the way through. I caught only a glimpse of the page before some compelling force pushed me away. It was identical to the page the Daughter of Night had been transcribing when Narayan Singh interrupted her so they could go visit Soulcatcher. The calligraphy was superior, more colorful and ornate, but the child had missed nothing important, I was sure.
The anger behind me grew stronger. It seemed to be looking for a focus. I learned early never to volunteer. I moved on as fast as my will would carry me, wondering what sort of nightmare this was. Its most bizarre and fantastic elements were most real. Maybe it was a mirror of the waking world.
The anger kept gaining although I saw nothing when I looked back. It did not catch me. I do not think. But without actually passing through anything suddenly I was in another place. There was a full bowl of stars overhead but not even a sliver of moon. I was high in the air. I could distinguish no features on the ground below.
It was like ghostwalking without the ghost. Only I could not just tell Smoke where to go and get there almost instantly. I could move, it seemed, though it was hard to tell... I had to have landmarks, I realized. I pushed back my panic.
I thought. I did have information. I knew up and down. I had a full field of stars overhead, so numerous they almost overwhelmed the outstanding constellations normally used for navigation. Trouble was, I had not studied the southern skies closely. Any astronomical navigation I did would be only slightly better than a guess.
I caught a faint whiff of corrupt flesh. That whipstroke got me moving toward a cluster of stars I vaguely recalled hanging close to the northern horizon during the spring. There were three of them in a flat triangle, all bright. The star at the peak of the triangle waxed and waned. Many legends attended it, most of them unpleasant. I was not intimate with them.
From that altitude I could see a fourth star in the constellation, equally bright, below the other three. I recalled seeing that formation when the Company was still far north of Taglios.
How high was I? Or was I somewhere far north of Ki-aulune?
I stopped moving forward and slanted down toward the earth. I found myself over a region where agriculture was extremely orderly, communal, making the most efficient use of man, animal and equipment, various operations having been laid out in a circle around a central manor with hamlets and single dwellings strung out along the spokes of wheels. Preparations for spring planting had begun although there were no workers in the fields at night.
I passed over circle after circle. The ground between had been left wild. I suppose it supported game and provided timber and charcoal and firewood.
I had heard of the region. It was in the Shadowlands west of Kiaulune. Longshadow had been experimenting with agricultural efficiencies in an effort to produce more with fewer workers so he could free up manpower to work construction on Overlook and serve in his armies.
I was not all that far from my own gang.
I worked my way eastward. After what seemed like hours I spied the glow from fires burning in the ruins of Kiaulune. I found my own part of our encampment, then my own shelter. I was comfortable enough with my condition to do a little experimenting now.
It took only moments to learn that while I could not will myself through a wall, or even the blankets One-Eye had hung for a doorway, or the side of a tent, I could slide my point of view through a crack or hole too small for a mouse or snake.
I could not go back or forth in time. I was confined to the now of my sleeping flesh.
I had control of the dream. It seemed real. What I saw of the camp was exactly what the camp should have been like while I was sleeping. My imagination was not good enough to make up a whole dream world that mimicked the real world exactly. A big question occurred.
Would I be able to do this again? Would getting here always be outside my control, the way it had been when I kept tumbling off the wall of today into the horrors of Dejagore?
If this was going to be one-time I had better use it for all it was worth.
I snaked back out into a cold I did not feel. For a second I thought about heading for the plain but just the thought stirred up an instant, powerful revulsion. Maybe later.
I went toward the mountains instead.
Spying on Soulcatcher would do. Up close. Without disturbing the crows, I discovered. They remained asleep. So did their mistress.
Her company had left. I was not going to find out a damned thing.
I could go over to Overlook and see what everybody was doing... I saw the faintest hint of light in the east. Dawn was on its way. And I began to feel a compulsion to head for the safety of my flesh. That drive grew stronger as the light did the same.
I headed for my body wondering if I was a dreaming vampire now.
Mother Gota was awake already. Though Soulcatcher had not been able, Ky Gota seemed to sense me somehow. She turned when I weaseled inside, looked almost directly at me, frowned when she saw nothing, then shuddered the way you do when a chill runs down your spine.
She went back to her cooking. I noted that she was preparing more food than she, Thai Dei and I could possibly eat all day. I supposed she planned to take some out to Uncle Doj.
“You look like shit,” One-Eye told me over breakfast.
“Thanks for the boost.”
“Bad dreams last night.” He did not know what I had been going through. I chose not to share everything now but I did practice my Forsberger long enough to tell him, “It looks like our friend the crow woman is up to something with her old pal Howler, our favorite Deceiver and the kid.”
Both Thai Dei and Mother Gota glanced at me sharply. I had used the Taglian for “Deceiver,” tooga. It was the same in Nyueng Bao.
“And old Longshadow thinks he’s got nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah. The Old Man always says even paranoids sometimes got somebody trying to stab them in the back.” Usually when I let him know I thought he was overdoing the paranoia himself.
“That kind of thing is nice to know but how can we use it?”
“Not my problem. I just work here. The Captain gets to make the decisions. That’s why he’s the Captain.” Just for the fun of it I slipped in the Taglian for “captain,” jamadar. Thai Dei and Mother Gota looked me over again. In the context of the Deceivers jamadar means more than just “captain.” It indicates a leader of a band, which is like a small nation of Deceivers. The only Deceiver jamadar now known to be alive was Narayan Singh, who had become jamadar of jamadars before the destruction of his cult.
They would think we were talking about the living legend, the saint who still walked the earth on his goddess’s behalf.
I tucked the last of my breakfast away, thanked Mother Gota, got up and left the dugout. Thai Dei followed me. I told him, “I’m just going to see the Captain. If you want to you can stay and work on the house.” We called our hole in the ground the house now.
Thai Dei shook his head. He had gotten lax about bodyguarding me lately. I did not feel neglected.
Time has a way of blunting the sharpest edge of determination.
I waited a moment for One-Eye to join us but he did not come out. More and more the little shit seemed perfectly willing to invite himself to my family meals rather than go to any trouble on his own.
I should be surprised after all these years?
Croaker looked about as happy as I felt. His night had been no bed of roses, either. He grumbled, “What is it this time?”
“Did a little dreaming last night. Went to hell and came back and then went out roaming without using Smoke at all.” I gave him the unhappy details.
“Could you do that again?”
“I been falling through rabbit holes in space and cracks in time for over a year. Maybe I’m getting the hang of it.”
“We wouldn’t need Smoke.”
“Especially since he’s threatening to wake up.” I must have had a nasty look on my face because he raised an eyebrow. I said, “It’d be fun to watch him try to get used to the new world he’d wake up in.”
Croaker smirked. “You’d want to stand upwind. He’d shit his guts out when he saw how far we’ve come. By the by, as long as you’re here, it’d be handy if you’d go see Lady. I sent her your maps. She’s going to pick off Narayan and catch the girl. If anybody asks you about the maps all you know is that we captured a couple of Mogaba’s officers who used to belong to Overlook’s garrison.”
I grunted, not entirely thrilled. I would not be able to lie to Lady convincingly.
“Experiment with this. I have to know if we can get along without Smoke.”
“I already know about one severe handicap.”
“I can’t travel back in time when I’m on my own.”
He sucked a bunch of air in, blew it out. “Wouldn’t you know? There had to be a catch. Smoke’s got job security.”
“You said you’d talk to One-Eye about keeping him from waking up.”
“He wasn’t much help.”
“Is he ever?”
“If you see him, send him over.”
“Right.” I got out of there, paused outside to stare across at the encampment below Overlook’s wall. I said, “The boss wants me to go over there and show Lady how to manage her business.”
It was a bright, sunshiny day. There was enough breeze to carry the smoke and stench away. Thai Dei observed, “Maybe some of the ground will dry up.”
Most of the snow had melted. It was springtime. Around Kiaulune that meant mud season. Mud would mean bugs eventually.
I wondered if melting snows would cause floods that would chase Soulcatcher out of her hideout.
It was time spring came to Kiaulune. It had arrived already everywhere else.
“I figured you’d crawl out of the woodwork pretty soon,” Willow Swan grumbled when I joined the crowd around Lady. Her staff were munching rolls one-handed while she told them what she wanted done so she could catch Narayan. “You turn up every time things get nasty.”
Blade showed me a smile. “The man needs a girlfriend.”
“Thought he had one, only she already has a boyfriend.”
“That’s where she was last night, eh?”
“Maybe.” It might explain why Croaker was so damned groggy this morning.
That man just had one adventure after another.
Lady was saying, “There were shadows in there before but Jarwaral says they haven’t been a problem lately. These charts supposedly show us where we can find the shadowweavers if we want. I want. We’ll take them out before we go after the Deceiver. Ah! Murgen.”
“She had to spot me,” I muttered to Blade. I looked for the inevitable crows. They were notable for their scarcity. The couple I did see acted like they were blind drunk.
Lady had employed some spell to diminish the flow of information to her sister.
“You stand out in a crowd,” Swan told me. “The women always notice you.”
Lady continued, “Come here. The Captain sent these charts. What do you know about them?”
“They’re supposed to be reliable.” A hundred percent unless there had been some heavy renovations in the last few hours.
“They aren’t very extensive.”
Bitch and gripe, bitch and gripe. Nobody is ever satisfied. “Want I should go dig the guy up and let you do some kind of necromantic thing on him?”
She gave me such an ugly look that for a moment I was afraid she would call my bluff. But she did not doubt me, she just was not getting the kind of fear and respect she expected. She relaxed, told me, “Except for the locations of the shadowweaver hideouts and where Singh is holing up there isn’t much here we didn’t know already.”
Which stuff was what the exercise was all about, woman. “There’s a little more. Longshadow is almost always locked up in this tower here, doing whatever he does instead of giving us grief. Howler has an apartment somewhere around here. He keeps two carpets on a flat place over here and a little bitty, brand-new one rolled up right beside his bed.”
Lady gave me a piercing look. How could I know that?
I told her, “The day he got here Howler started covering his ass in case his partner turned on him someday.”
“Uhm?” she grunted. “Howler would. Particularly in view of what Longshadow tried to do to his previous associates.” She turned her attention to the charts. But I knew she was not satisfied. She could not be satisfied when somebody else knew anything that she did not.
She beckoned Isi, Ochiba and Sindawe closer. The Nar generals worked well with her. They did not do so with the Old Man. Croaker could not trust them even though they stuck with the Company against Mogaba. “Should we do this in the daytime or at night?”
Ochiba, a man I had heard speak maybe five times in that many years, said, “It won’t matter in there.”
“True. But I prefer by daylight. For the impact on morale.”
“It’s daytime now,” Swan observed.
I told Blade, “You can’t get anything past this guy.”
Lady glanced at Willow. “You want to see how well your Guards can perform in there?”
“I’d love to. But that isn’t their job.”
Their job was to look out for the Prince and Princess, neither of whom he or they had been near in recent times.
Everybody there had that thought at the same time I did. Everybody gave Swan a long look. He reddened.
“Sindawe, you’re my second choice.” Lady stepped aside so the tall Nar could move closer to the charts. I had kept wriggling forward. Now I could see that there was more than one set. Only one was the one I had prepared. The other, structured differently, may have been put together by Lady’s people based on what her soldiers had found inside Overlook.
The Nar officer stared for a while. “We ought to rotate fresh troops in before we do anything else.”
Isi agreed. “The men inside have been there a long time, under a lot of pressure.”
Lady said, “I’ll approve that.”
Sindawe said, “We should add numbers for this. Once we start moving there won’t be any point to pretense. Will there?”
“Probably not. Succeed or fail, going ahead will attract some close scrutiny. And the Captain hasn’t given us the option of not going ahead. Has he, Murgen?”
I shrugged. “He’ll always defer to the commander on the scene. You know that. As long as you can make a good argument.”
“We don’t have an option, then. We’ve been stalling in hopes somebody else would come up with a workable solution to the Longshadow dilemma.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The fact that we can’t kill him. You know that, don’t you?”
I knew that. What I did not know was how they planned to send fresh troops into Overlook.
Sindawe said, “We ought to pursue every phase of the effort at once. Here, here, toward these shadow weaver hideouts. Here, toward the Deceiver’s holeup. And a general raid against the garrison and servant population, too. So they don’t interfere in our other efforts.”
“Go for Longshadow, too,” Lady suggested. “You might get lucky.”
I was missing something. There was a hundred-foot wall over there, not nearly as shiny as it used to be, and absent some of its pretty towers, but not one foot shorter than it ever was. Why were these people not impressed? “You all walk through walls or something?”
“If that’s convenient,” Lady replied.
“We’ll crawl,” Sindawe told me.
Soon enough I discovered something else that I had missed while doing my all-seeing thing in the ghostworld because I had not been looking.
They had a tunnel under the wall. Through the foundation, really. But just a wormhole of a thing. A guy my size had to slither on his belly like a snake. I know because I did it.
Why did I have to do it in the flesh? I could have gone back and ridden Smoke. I could have seen everything with no claustrophobia, no bruised elbows or knees, no pops in the snot box from the heels of the clown in front of me. No weaseling through the farts and fear smells of the hundred little vegetarians snaking along ahead of me, raising the dead with all the clatter of their weaponry.
Where were the Shadowmaster’s boys? All this racket, they had to be chuckling while they sharpened their swords. They were going to have Tals for their afternoon snack.
The tunnel had been created in part by a liberal application of Lady’s fireball tools. In places its walls were still hot. It was completely new. All I saw when I got to its nether end was a gang of raggedy-ass Taglians who had been on the inside way too long. They looked like they had had a glimpse of heaven but a bunch of assholes like me were blocking the way.
I was the last guy in my string. Number one hundred one. When I crawled out of his way number one of the guys being relieved dove into the hole and slithered away.
Only twenty got to leave for each hundred who came in. The twenty were very enthusiastic. But nobody heard the clatter upstairs.
Ochiba, Isi and Sindawe began choosing up teams to go thump on Longshadow’s guys. Sindawe always was decent to me, even when he worked for Mogaba. He was willing to change his ways, though. “Would you like to lead an attack group, Standardbearer?”
“Obviously you have me confused with somebody who thinks he’s a hero.”
“You could make big points by catching Narayan Singh.”
“I don’t need big points. Talk to Blade or Swan.”
Sindawe chuckled. “You won’t see them in here.”
“They aren’t Company. Lady wouldn’t trust them in a tight place.”
Interesting. She would trust these Nar.
Croaker did not. Not one hundred percent. Never.
Sindawe read me plain. He smiled. “This place is tight enough.”
“Yeah. I still ain’t going to be a hero. I’ll just come along behind and watch so I can write it down right.”
“Sin,” Isi called. “Got to move. The garrison knows something’s going on.”
The Shadowlanders were slower than I expected. Sindawe and his pals were faster. About as quickly as it took to think it they led three groups off to the attack, going like they were right at home although none of them had been inside Overlook before.
Overlook inside was no shiny white marvel. Wherever we were, it was way down deep in the ground where it was dirty and damp and unpleasant creatures with two, four or six more legs than me lurked in every shadow. Thai Dei did not like it at all.
He had needed several hundred-man shifts just to find nerve enough to come inside.
“Move back,” I growled at the troops waiting to go out. “For now this tunnel only runs one way. Thai Dei, slap that moron up side the head. Then thump that fool sitting in the mouth of the tunnel gawking. Let’s go, people. There’s a war going on in here. We don’t have time for lolligagging.” I was turning into a real top kick. Now if I could get the vocabulary working.
“Lolligagging” does not exist in Taglian. The word got me a lot of dazed looks. The pithier nouns, verbs and adjectives do exist, mostly, with much of the usual impact. Religious insults work real good, too.
“You,” I said to a head being birthed by the tunnel, “pass the word back that we’re engaged. We need people in here as fast as we can get them.”
Sindawe reappeared. He was the commanding officer for this deathdance. He was amused by my barking. But he was politic. He was a big general only where the Taglian troops were concerned. The day might come when I was his boss inside the Company. He told me, “There’s still the attack on Longshadow to launch. You could spearhead that one.”
I recalled the black spear One-Eye made specially for sticking Shadowmasters. Be a handy tool if I was to do something dumb like go after Longshadow. “I’ll let somebody else have that honor. I don’t want to hog everything.”
Tell the truth, the place had me spooked. The smell of damp stone, vermin and old fear, combined with the cold and bad light, recalled too strongly all my nightmares about old men trapped forever in caverns where neverseen spiders spun webs and cocoons of ice.
Coming inside Overlook had been a dumb idea. I suspected that when I made the decision to visit, but I did not listen to the little voice of fear because all those guys like Blade and Swan were hanging around grumbling about how the boys from headquarters never risk their cute and precious butts when the blood and shit start flying.
It was the usual stuff. I started the same sort of crying about an hour after I took the oath. I just did not want to be the guy the troops thought had spent his last thirty years with his head up his butt.
My message reached the other end of the tunnel. People started arriving at double speed.
I had no idea if Longshadow and Howler realized we had a way into Overlook. They did not act like they were desperate to plug an unexpected breach in the wall. Their response was angry and vigorous but only with the power you would expect if they thought the bunch already inside were getting frisky.
Our people did not reach Longshadow. Which was no surprise. The surprise of the century would have been if the crazy son of a bitch had come floating belly up.
Likewise Soulcatcher’s little screaming buddy the Howler. Except that Isi, who was running that try, was clever enough to know he just might not be one hundred percent successful at squashing the little shit. So while he kept Howler dancing saving his ass from fifty guys with bamboo poles, five other guys burned his flying carpets. All but the little one that he kept right beside him. And Isi would have gotten that one, too, if Howler had had the balls to chase Isi’s men the way Isi wanted. What Isi failed to appreciate was that very few men were hung as heavy as him.
However she managed it Lady had a good grasp of events inside the fortress. She recognized the failures where Longshadow and her former employee were concerned. She also knew, somehow, that Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night, by coincidence or the grace of their deity, happened to be away from their quarters when our gang turned up to collect them.
Their servants were not so lucky.
Most of those who had chosen to come into Overlook, either to serve the Shadowmaster or just to be safe from pestilence, hunger, or other terrors of the world, were not as lucky as their master. Ochiba took the garrison completely off guard. He and his men must have had trouble hearing their parents when they were growing up. They never got a grasp on the concepts of mercy or noncombatants.
Which I really did not get a good look at till much later. After I got out of that slaughterhouse. After the casualties started coming in to the tunnel head, for evacuation if the chance came. After Lady stopped sending men in because she thought that would be a waste. After I got me back out of there, in one uncarved piece, dragging one end of a wounded Taglian while Thai Dei pushed the other, with the Taglian complaining all the way and the tunnel about a mile longer going out than it had been coming in. After coming up into free air only to find Willow Swan and Blade there wondering aloud why I was not back inside collecting Longshadow’s ears.
“Didn’t want to steal your chance to count coup. Sindawe’s got you all set up. All you guys got to do is pick up a couple of sharp knives and slide on in there. You can collect Howler’s scalp while you’re at it. You’ll find them waiting for you together, I think. Up by the Shadowmaster’s tower.”
“You ready?” Blade asked Swan. “I got my knife.” Blade had a grin on. He was perfectly willing to give Swan just as much crap as he gave me.
Lady came striding toward us. She was decked out in the complete Lifetaker armor. Threads of red fire slithered over its black, hideous surface faster than the eye could follow. Taglians thought the Lifetaker image matched one of Kina’s Destroyer avatars. Despite what had been done to her and her daughter, plenty of people still thought she was a creature of the dark goddess. Sometimes those people included me.
There was a connection for sure. She would not discuss it.
But I did not tell her about me and Smoke. So we were even.
“Any success to report?” Her voice was a bass boom rolling down a long, cold tunnel. “Anything at all?”
“Lots of dead people. Both sides. A lot of them aren’t people we especially wanted dead. But I’d say they’ve only got one way left to hang on to the place.”
“Loose the shadows.” I sort of croaked it out. I did not want to be a fortune-teller but that was a future that did not require a lot of divination. “Unless these two get to Longshadow first.” I indicated Swan and Blade.
Lady was not in a mood for banter.
She never was. The woman had about as much humor in her as my mother-in-law.
She did enjoy a good impaling, though.
She did the thing that created the cyclone of light blades and turned it loose among the taller towers. It drifted around on its own, doing plenty of damage and keeping Longshadow and Howler too busy to finish off her troops.
“That’s the second time,” the Old Man growled. “I thought I got through to you after the adventure in Kiaulune.” He was pissed off because I had gone inside Overlook. “You take Smoke down there and find out what the Shadowmaster and Howler are doing.”
When Thai Dei and I had gotten back we had found Croaker already barking and snarling at a gang of couriers. Obviously he thought Lady had started something the rest of us were going to regret.
I got the feeling Soulcatcher clued in late and was about as thrilled as the Captain. Crows appeared everywhere. They were unpleasant, even for Catcher’s agents. They swooped around shooting crow shit everywhere.
“When you’re done checking on Longshadow and Howler I want you to start identifying the whereabouts of every man of ours.”
“The Company. Old Crew. Nar. I want to get everybody together. Real soon now.”
“You got it.”
“Of course. But add in a dab of common sense, Murgen. To get to Khatovar the Company needs a standardbearer. Probably more than it’ll ever need a Captain or Lieutenant.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If anybody had a clue what you were up to it’s just possible they could do the things you want done when you want them done.” I walked away before we squabbled in front of the troops.
Longshadow was taking it out on Howler. And Howler was getting him even more pissed off by not paying a lot of attention. He was witching up some colorful little construct out of thin air. I had to study it a while before I recognized it as a representation of the areas of Overlook that were in our side’s hands. It was a complicated little cyan and magenta mess with a tail that dipped through the foundations of the wall to Lady’s positions outside.
He did nothing to restrain his screams. Several came in quick succession, howls that seemed to have a little extra emotion behind them.
The third howl triggered something inside Longshadow’s head. He shut up. He adjusted his mask, leaned forward to stare at Howler’s construct. He reached out with fingers as skinny as spider legs despite being inside a glove, poked at the tail leading to the outside. “How did she manage that? That should not have been possible.” His lunacy, his rant, vanished like mist in the morning sun. It was almost as if his reason had cleared. “The stone cannot be worked.”
“That’s Senjak out there, if you’ll recall. She’ll work the stone the same way you did.”
Longshadow made a noise like a cat’s growl. I thought his moment of lucidity had passed. I thought he was about to have an all-time fit. He fooled me. “Find the Deceiver and his brat. They need to be here, inside this tower, before midnight. If they want to survive.”
Howler replied with an interrogative grunt.
“I have no use for them anymore. I owe them nothing. They have done nothing for me. But I will give them this opportunity to survive.”
I did not wait around to learn what happened next.
“What’re you doing back already?” Croaker demanded when I sat up. “You haven’t been out long enough—”
“Excuse me, boss. I’ve already got a mother-in-law. Yes, I was out there long enough to hear Longshadow say he’s going to turn the shadows loose tonight.”
Croaker shut his mouth. I hurried through the information. He said, “You’re right. He didn’t say shadows in that many words but it can’t be anything else. Get back to it. I’ll round up One-Eye and get the word out.”
“How long do we have?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what time it is now. Just get going.”
“I’ll need water and food brought in. The water should be sweet.”
“Go.” I went.
I came back to flesh every few minutes to report the whereabouts of those Company brothers I could locate. The Old Man sent warnings to those he could, telling them to get over to the division at the Shadowgate.
Wagons were on the move soon, leaving Lady’s crude factories with stocks of bamboo her workers had been able to reload. The supply seemed woeful to me.
I darted everywhere. When I thought it would not hurt I fluttered northward. Swarms of crows came and went from the ravine where Soulcatcher holed up. I skipped backward in time, watched the Old Man and, sure enough, I found a time when he whispered to those two huge crows of his and they promptly flapped off to gossip with the crazy sister. I could not get Smoke anywhere near her, of course, and anytime I pushed even a little I got that tickling she is the darkness sensation.
I got a ghost of the same thing when I swarmed off to see what the Daughter of Night was doing, though Smoke showed no reluctance to move a little closer. The child was writing furiously, her little face contorted in pain. She was working on a different volume. This one she had only just begun.
“Oh, shit!” She finished the first one already? Croaker needed to know that. We might be in deeper shit than I had thought.
Where was the Book? I did not see it anywhere. I had better find out.
I took a dive into the past.
I found the Daughter of Night crying. I found Narayan Singh stunned by that. He had not seen that before and did not know how to comfort her, though he had had children of his own in another time, another world, before the Black Company came to Taglios.
I pushed back farther, to discover the cause of this bizarre circumstance. I could think of a hundred unlikely candidates I expected to see cry before that grim midget broke down.
It started when she and Singh returned to their apartment after having escaped it only a step ahead of Lady’s raiders. Though forewarned the child had been too busy writing to pay close attention and had waited almost too long.
Their exit had been so hasty they had had to leave the Book behind.
So, I thought, some lad from Lady’s gang realized it was important and decided to take it back to the boss. I would have suspected Swan or Blade had they been inside Overlook.
I was surprised again when I did identify the culprit.
Howler. The little snake managed to slither into those quarters while supposedly driving our men back, while Narayan and the girl were suffering the effects of a mild disorientation spell not fifty feet away. He made the Book vanish.
The screaming wizard must have feared that he could be seen from afar because he pulled a bunch of stunts and used a handful of spells, over the next several hours, to make sure the Book got lost to everybody but himself.
He left a blank book behind. It was a twin of the one he took.
Curious. How did Howler know about the Book? I checked my memories against whatever Smoke could find fast. Yep. Neither the kid nor Singh mentioned it to anybody. Longshadow’s people did tell him that they had asked for writing stuff but the Shadowmaster had not passed that on to Howler.
I knew about the Book. I had told Croaker about it. Howler had visited Soulcatcher. The Old Man communicated with Catcher.
Could it be?
If I got a chance to dream my way around there again I might try to find out... Shit! I could see only what was happening right now.
I ripped out of there, went back to my flesh. I was starving and thirsty when I came out.
“About time,” One-Eye told me.
I guzzled water. “Where’s Croaker?”
“Out making sure everybody knows they need to keep their shelters buttoned up tight tonight. Trying to get those shadow repellent candles out where we’re thin on bamboo poles.”
“Oh.” I ate for a few minutes. My manners were not upper-class. Then I asked, “You got any idea what’s going on between the Captain and Soulcatcher?”
“I didn’t know anything was.”
I groaned, drank some more water. “You blind?”
He shrugged. “What did I miss?”
“Those two have been swapping information all along. That don’t sound that smart to me.”
“You figure the Old Man ain’t smart enough to deal with her?”
That was exactly what I figured. Soulcatcher was a slippery old fish when Croaker’s grandfather was wetting his diapers. “Me? Doubt the Captain in any way? How could I do such a thing?”
“Not you. You’re a veritable worshipper of the cow flops he walks on. You got a reason to be in a panic? Soon as we get straightened out here I want to get back to my hole. I’ve got some suckers coming over for a game of tonk.”
That was One-Eye. The world was coming to an end and his main interest was cheating somebody at cards. “Tell the boss Howler snatched the copy of the book his kid was writing. He left her a blank so she could start over.” I took a deep drink while One-Eye stared at me dumbly, waiting for me to explain what I meant. I told him, “He’ll understand.”
“Everybody’s got to keep secrets from everybody else. So the only people who know what’s going on are their enemies.”
I grunted as I turned back to Smoke. One-Eye had a point.
As we neared Lady I sensed Smoke’s she is the darkness emotion, not very strongly. He must have a thing about females in general since he seemed to respond the same to all of them.
Lady had received word but she did not seem troubled. Longshadow loosing his pets had been a concern of hers for years. Her men were trained. What needed preparing was kept at a state of near readiness all the time. Her division might succumb but not through their own failings.
That had been Lady’s way from the dawn of time.
I yielded to temptation and sped off to the north. I told myself I wanted to see if I could find Goblin and Mogaba. It would be good to know how exposed they might be in the coming mess. But I wanted to go on, past there, a long way. All the way to the wellsprings of my heart.
I might not get to see her again, ever. This might be the last night of my life.
Goblin was almost impossible to find despite there being crows wobbling all over above the south face of the Dandha Presh. His handiwork was obvious, though. Anywhere that the locals were insane enough to cooperate with Mogaba, Goblin’s band had pillaged and burned and made examples. Mogaba’s troops had done the same to everyone dim enough to cooperate with Goblin or any of our allies. From a strictly practical, aftermath sort of viewpoint it was impossible to tell who had provided which instructional display.
The locals did not seem to care who was fighting whom, or why. They knew they did not see any good guys or bad guys anywhere. During the few minutes I took to dip around in time I saw several villages and manors attacked. The nearer the present the violence occurred the more likely its victims were to resist whoever came calling.
The forvalaka participated in some of Goblin’s night raids. Crows came and went when she did, but a few always did so even if the big cat was elsewhere.
They visited Mogaba, too. Apparently. Longshadow had provided Mogaba with an arsenal of mystical objects capable of distracting a seeker like myself, of averting any other watching eye.
But this was not getting me to what I wanted to see.
I did take a moment to check in on Cordy Mather’s party. Old Cordwood was on the south side of the Dandha Presh now, moving slowly and moving at all only because the mountains remained incredibly inhospitable.
Cordy did not have crow trouble. That I could see.
I was startled, though, to discover that a flock of the little monsters had nested amongst the crags and crumbles of the exterior of the Palace at Trogo Taglios. Though that should not have amazed me so, on reflection. Events in the Palace would be of particular interest to Soulcatcher, who liked to push her nose deep into everybody’s business.
I was too eager to visit the swamp to waste time rooting around in the Radisha’s secrets. She is the darkness. She was still holding a lot of meetings with priests and leading men. Our books remained hidden where we had left them.
I was surprised that the Radisha was making no great effort to find Smoke anymore. I did not believe that she had forgotten him.
But I wanted to travel on. Banh Do Trang should have had time to reach Sahra.
Oh, he had. He had! For the sheer power of the self-tantalization I joined him late in his journey and followed him as he approached the Temple of Ghanghesha. Shortly before he reached the place he stepped off the trail, which was just a raised path meandering through swamp converted to rice paddy, and took time to adopt a disguise using materials he had brought along. A little more dirt, a change in the hang of his hair, the quick adoption of a raggedy orange robe, and he became a wandering mendicant of one of the Gunni cults. Their vows-of-poverty missionaries went everywhere. Even the Nyueng Bao tolerated them. Their holiness was beyond question, however mad they might be as individuals.
I have always found the religious tolerance of the southerners amazing and disconcerting, though it was really only an ancient habit predicated on the fact that no religious community was strong enough to show the rest the errors in their thinking at swordspoint.
Trang continued on his way. He did the mendicant part very well. I think he may have played it before, maybe while first visiting Taglios. Nyueng Bao were not welcomed warmly there. They were too arrogant a minority.
No matter. Trang was admitted to the temple. The older priests seemed to know the character he pretended to be.
Trang did not approach Sahra immediately. In fact, he waited till evening before contriving to stumble into her. They had encountered one another several times during the day. Sahra had not recognized him.
He made his apologies in softly whispered Taglian while Sahra was still too rattled by the collision to give herself away by jumping.
I did not hear what Trang said. I did see Sahra’s eyes focus and fill with surprised life. She accepted his profuse apologies and went her way.
That night she left the door to her cubicle unlatched. She indulged in the extravagance of leaving her candle burning.
Trang arrived very late, when the only priests still awake were the three making the regular midnight offering to Ghanghesha in hopes of inspiring the god to grant the world another complete daily cycle free from calamity and despair.
Trang scratched at the door to Sahra’s cell. It was a crude wicker thing that would not have thwarted a determined woodchuck. More a symbol of the thing than the thing itself, really. A rag curtain hung behind it, containing the light. Sahra let Trang inside, gestured him to a seat upon her mat. The old man sat, taking his due. He looked up at Sahra with liquid eyes. I knew he understood the substance of the message he carried even though he was far too honorable a man to have read it.
In that instant I nearly panicked. I had tried some to teach Sarie to read but she had not picked up much. How would she be able to... ? She would ask Trang, of course. And then I would find out just how good a friend the old man was. If his secret self sided with Uncle Doj...
Sahra’s manners were perfection, which maddened me.
Even though she could not serve tea or indulge in any of the other ceremonial delays Nyueng Bao use to avoid getting to the point, she managed to delay the crisis of the visit for fifteen minutes.
“I have a message,” Trang said at last, in a whisper that could not have been heard by someone listening outside the door, even had that eavesdropper spoken Taglian. “It was delivered into my hand by a Stone Soldier who carried it north all the way from the last stronghold of the Shadowmasters. He insisted that it be delivered to you. Here.”
Sahra lowered herself to her knees before him. It was difficult for her. She was getting big. She met his eye, frowning slightly. She did not speak. I do not think she trusted herself to open her mouth.
“The Soldier of Darkness knew where you were. He knew what name you were using. This when I myself did not suspect that you had survived the tooga. Your family are cunning in their cruelty.”
Sahra nodded. Still she did not trust herself to speak.
Gods, she was beautiful!
“They knew from half a world away, child. This frightens me. These are terrible times and terrible people walk among us. Some of them we cannot recognize. The Bone Warriors appear no more frightful than any others, yet—”
“A message, Uncle?” She used that word as an honorific. Trang was not related in any way.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I grow so frightened whenever I spend too much time thinking.”
Sahra took my letter, stared at it a moment, reluctant to find out what was inside. But she was happy, too, I could see. Her husband’s brotherhood knew and cared. “Who brought this?”
“He did not give a name. He is very young. He is Jaicuri. Vehdna. Low caste.”
“He has a scar that makes his left eyelid droop so when you see him from that side it looks like he’s having trouble staying awake?”
“Indeed. You know him?”
“I remember him.” She turned my letter over again.
“Do it, child.”
“Fear is the mind-killer.”
Damn! All of a sudden he sounded like Uncle Doj back when he was giving me fencing and fighting lessons. Was old Trang another one of these secret priests?
Sahra opened the message. She stared down at what I had written, in big, careful, clear characters. Finally, she said, “Read it for me, please, Uncle.”
Trang stuck a little finger into his left ear and dug around amongst the tufts. That old man had more hair there than on top of his head. He scanned my message, which he held in his other hand. He took a while to digest and think. Then he looked up at Sahra. He opened his mouth to speak, suffered a thought, looked around as though startled.
It had occurred to him that it was, apparently, somehow, possible for us to see what was happening inside the temple of Ghanghesha. It had occurred to him that this was a moment that would interest us very much. Particularly a Soldier of Darkness name of Murgen.
“It purports to be a letter from your husband.” He hesitated just a fraction of a heartbeat as he decided to leave out the adjective “foreign.”
“It is. I know his hand. What does it say?”
“It says he isn’t dead. That they told him you were dead. That he knows where you are and what your circumstances are because a great magic has been made available to him. That he will come to you as soon as the Shadowmaster is crushed.”
That was actually pretty close to what I had written.
Sahra started to cry.
Sahra? I wanted to hold her. She was always the strong one. The disasters that overtook her could not break her. Always she soldiered on. No tears for Sahra, ever.
I did not like seeing her emotionally distressed.
I drifted nearer Trang. He shuddered, looked around. “That’s not all he said. He said he loves you and he hopes you’ll forgive him for the failure that let this happen.”
Sahra stifled her tears. She nodded. “I know he loves me. The question is, why do the gods hate me? I’ve done nothing to harm them.”
“The gods don’t think the way we do. They scheme schemes in which a life is only a flicker, just a second in a century. They do not ask us if we want to participate, perhaps as an alternative to happiness. They use us as we use the beasts of forest, swamp and field. We’re the clay they sculpt.”
“Uncle Trang, I don’t need a homily. I need my husband. And I need to be free of the machinations of old men...” Sahra started. She gestured, indicating that someone was outside, that Trang should be quiet. I drifted out of Sahra’s cell.
A priest stood a step away from her door, poised in uncertainty. He must have heard something as he was passing. He glanced both ways along the unlighted hall, down at his own small lamp, then moved to Sahra’s door and cocked an ear.
I swooped in close, poured all my anger into my will and tried to butt heads with him.
He spun around. He started to shake. He hurried away. I could scare more than birds if I got mad enough.
I went back inside. Sahra wanted Trang to send a reply. Her speaking the words were all the reply I needed although I would look forward to the note as a physical confirmation of our eternal connection, an icon to carry with me till we saw one another again. Trang agreed but he chose his words carefully. He kept looking around like he thought the place was haunted. He asked, “How is your pregnancy going?”
“That is one thing I do very well, without great effort or trouble, Uncle. I have babies.”
“This one will be bigger than your first two. Your husband is a big man.”
“Do you expect the child to be a devil, too?”
Trang smiled thinly. “Not in the sense others might mean. But in the sense of Hong Tray’s prophecy, probably. Your grandmother was a wise woman. Her prophecies all come to pass—though not always in the manner we imagined when she offered them.”
“She said nothing about any monster.”
“What she said and what your mother and Doj heard were not necessarily the same. There are things people just don’t want to hear.”
He had my interest on several fronts. I might learn something more about Uncle Doj. I might learn something about this prophecy of Hong Tray’s, which, so far, was almost as mysterious as the concerted determination of all Taglians that the Black Company had to be some sort of catastrophe in the making, worse than any flood or earthquake. Trang disappointed me. He said nothing more. In fact, he struck a listening attitude.
I popped into the hallway.
The man I had frightened before was returning. And he was bringing friends.
I swooped at him again, angrier than before. He was no hero. He squealed and took off. His companions yammered among themselves. They decided their friend must have mental problems. They went after him instead of going on to Sahra’s cell. I followed to make sure.
Trang was gone when I got back. A flick through time provided me no useful information.
Sahra had moved to her pallet. She was on her knees there, palms atop her thighs, staring straight forward. Waiting.
I drifted into position in front of her.
“You’re here, aren’t you, Mur? I can feel it. You’re what I’ve felt before, aren’t you?”
I tried to answer her. I got she is the darkness! from Smoke and a reeling back. Why now? Sahra had not bothered him before. Had she?
He did not like any female these days. He even tensed up around the Radisha when we were there.
I pushed inward. Smoke pushed back. Sahra sensed something. She said, “I’m too heavy to travel now. I’ll come as soon as our son can travel.”
A son? Me?
I became a different man in that moment. But it lasted only a few seconds. Only until I wondered, how could she know that?
Some people called her a witch. Well, spooky. I never saw it myself.
But maybe she could know.
My world began to shudder and shake. I had enough experience ghostwalking to know that meant somebody back at the shop wanted me to wake up. Reluctantly, I responded. I wished there was some way, any way, to let Sahra know I had gotten her message. “I love you, Sarie,” I thought.
“I love you, Murgen,” Sahra said, as though she had heard me.
The shaking grew more insistent. I turned loose of the temple of Ghanghesha but refused to be managed completely. I tried to drop in on the Radisha for a closer look at her scheming but Smoke shied away with an aversion almost as strong as that he showed for Soulcatcher. She is the darkness.
The earth blurred beneath my point of view. I was low and moving fast. Maybe that helped defeat some of the spells making Goblin and Mogaba so hard to find. I got a clear, if brief, look at both as I whipped past.
They were on the move. Mogaba seemed to be gathering strength. The forvalaka was with Goblin. Both groups moved inside an envelope of crows.
Soulcatcher probably had a better idea of the big picture than I did.
“Don’t you ever learn?” Croaker snarled.
I barely had strength enough to sit up and reach for something to drink. I had spent a lot more time out than I realized while it was happening. Sarie always did make me lose track of time.
“Shit,” I murmured. “That took it out of me. I could eat a cow.”
“You weren’t supposed to be dealing with family things. You keep it up, it’s going to be crow, not cow.”
You could not find an edible cow in this end of the world, anyway.
I grunted. I had a pitcher of something sweet in one hand and a warm loaf of bread in the other. At that moment it did not occur to me to ask why he would accuse me of getting involved in family things.
“It’s dark already. Our people are all climbing into their holes and pulling them in after them. I need you rested and ready because I want you over there watching the Shadowgate. And not sightseeing, either. We need to get a signal up the instant Longshadow cracks the gate.”
I lifted a hand. As soon as I cleared my mouth I asked, “Why don’t I watch Longshadow? Smoke don’t want to get close out there. I might not see the shadows moving till it’s too late. Longshadow I can see while he’s making his summons.” I dumped some sugar water in behind the last bite of bread.
“Shit.” Suddenly, the Old Man looked like he wanted to cry.
“Where’s One-Eye?” I asked. “Better get him in here.”
Smoke had not made a sound in years.
“You find him. I’m the physician here.” He headed for Smoke’s cot.
“Good idea.” I got myself up and stumbled toward the doorway on still feeble legs.
It was a great night for all hell to break loose. I had not really noticed the gathering darkness while walking the ghost, so lost in thought had I been. But clouds were moving in to deepen the darkness. “One-Eye!” I bellowed. “Get your dead ass over here now!”
I considered the clouds. My suggestion looked real good now.
Where the hell was that little shit? I climbed on up out of Croaker’s dugout. “One-Eye!” I headed for his hole. Surely he did not intend to spend the night there? He had not done nearly enough work on it to make it a good place to wait out a night when shadows were slithering about, wizard or not.
I was almost there when the little wizard came scuttling from the direction of my shelter. “What do you want, Kid?”
“Where the hell you been? Never mind. We got trouble with the ghost.”
“He’s making noise,” I whispered. Then I glanced around. I had forgotten to guard my tongue.
It was my lucky night. There were no crows anywhere around.
One-Eye glanced over his shoulder. “Making noise?” He did not believe me.
“Did I stutter? Get your ass in there. Croaker’s already checking him for physical problems.” I continued to look for listeners. Mice and bats and shadows have little ears, too.
A boreal light rippled between Overlook and the jagged ruins of Kiaulune, reflecting brilliantly off the metal in the fortress wall. It was just a sputter, though, as Lady got tuned up. A moment later the only light visible anywhere came from the surviving chambers of crystal atop Overlook’s towers. Longshadow’s favorite was particularly bright.
“You gonna stand around and gawk or are you gonna get on with business?”
That was One-Eye. Turn everything around so any delays would be my fault.
I took one last look around before I went inside. Still nothing. I dropped the rags covering the doorway, moved a shadow repellent candle on a stand into place between the doorway and the rest of us. I lighted it from the nearest lamp. We ought not to count on Longshadow to keep our timetable. “I wonder if the Shadowmaster isn’t curious about why we aren’t showing any lights and making any noise.”
“Hush,” One-Eye told me. He whispered, “Thought you said Croaker was giving him a physical.”
Croaker was sitting in my chair, slumped. “He was when I left.” I grabbed a pitcher and sucked down a bellyful of sweet water.
“He don’t look real frisky to me,” One-Eye said. He poked Smoke.
“I didn’t say he got up and danced a hornpipe. He groaned. In all the time I’ve been around him the only noises he ever made was when we thought he was coming down with pneumonia. A groan looked like a big thing. Croaker agreed.”
The Old Man made a noise. He returned to flesh. As soon as his head cleared he told us, “It’s going to be interesting. Longshadow just sent for Howler, Singh and the girl. He’s ready to get started.”
One-Eye grumbled, “A thrill a minute around here. Shadows again. I knew I should’ve picked up that farmland and got out. Swizzledick here says the runt’s been getting uppity. Talking back and everything.”
“He made a sound,” Croaker snapped. “Call it a groan. And when I tried to take a look at the girl he shied away and gave off a sort of feeling to do with shadows.”
“‘She is the darkness,’” I quoted. “Lately he’s done it any time I take him close to anybody female. It’s strongest near Soulcatcher. Sarie and the Radisha tie for number two.”
“Ah,” One-Eye said. “I’d almost forgotten that old witch. How’s she doing, Murgen?”
“I hear Cordy’s on his way. He might want to know.”
“You’re going to tell him we can spy on his bounce baby?”
“Grr. I guess not. But I owe him a couple, three big tweaks.”
Personally, I doubt that anybody has ever gotten ahead of One-Eye anywhere. Except maybe Goblin. One-Eye is the kind of guy who gets even with you first.
One-Eye is also the kind of guy who can still hand out the occasional surprise after two hundred years. “I don’t make it through the night tonight, there’s a will in my bedroll. Most everything goes to Goblin. Couple things, though, I want Gota to have.” He was peeling back Smoke’s eyelids at the time so did not notice when Croaker and I exchanged startled looks.
Croaker said, “You don’t make it, there’s not much chance we’ll still be here, either.”
“The Kid will be. His mother-in-law claims he’s destined. What for, who knows? The only one who ever did is dead.”
Before the Old Man could ask, I said, “He’s talking about something Hong Tray came up with way back in Dejagore. I’m not sure what it was. Sarie and I talked about it but they never made it clear to her, either. Something about the future of the Nyueng Bao. I know it bugged the shit out of Uncle Doj and Mother Gota. Thai Dei’s more neutral but he’s not keen on it, either. I think he’s glad he doesn’t really know what’s going on.”
“I think you’ve pretty well shaped the future of those people already,” Croaker told me. “We’ve still got half the tribe traipsing around behind us. Where’s your pet, One-Eye? I haven’t seen him in a week.”
“JoJo? Damned if I know. Long as he stays out from underfoot... Look, I don’t see anything different about this guy. Not from here. Let me take him out, see if there’s any change in him where he’s at.”
I said, “I already told you—”
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up. I got to concentrate here.” But not much. Smoke was so used to being used this way that taking him out required no effort at all.
Croaker said, “He did feel a little different. But it’s been a long time for me.”
“It just occurred to me that I haven’t run into Kina out there lately.”
“How about in your dreams?”
I could not remember. “That’s odd. I don’t remember. But it has to be. I have the same dreams all the time. I’m almost comfortable with them now.”
“Maybe that’s the point. Be careful.”
“Like One-Eye says, careful is my middle name.”
“Stupid is One-Eye’s middle name.”
“I heard that. I’ll turn you into a toad.” The little wizard was back already.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re not even good at turning food into shit. What’s the word?” I asked.
“We may have to wait for a day when we have more time but you and me are going to have to sit down and see what we can figure out about what you’ve been doing.”
“It feels to me like a couple of the walls he’s hiding behind have started to fall down.”
Croaker asked, “Is he going to wake up on us tonight, right in the middle of things?”
“I doubt it. He’s still buried way down deep.” He watched me suck down some more water, then follow that with a leg from a roasted chicken. You do not eat badly if you are the Liberator. “You going to suck down everything in sight, Kid?”
“It’s going to be a long night.”
“You stay here and stick to business,” Croaker told me. “Short trips out only. Let me know what’s happening when it happens.”
“Right. Will do, boss.”
“One-Eye. We need more spells around this place. Something that will keep the shadows away but that will let us come and go if we want to.”
One-Eye put on a big, gap-toothed grin and cocked that ugly hat of his at an uglier angle. “I done come up with the perfect amulet, chief. Figuring we were going to need to have messengers moving around during hard times.”
“How many do you have?”
“Right now, an even baker’s dozen.”
“Hey. They’re hard to make.”
And, no doubt, fooling with them took time away from his still and black market projects.