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Authors: Glen Cook

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Shadows Linger

BOOK: Shadows Linger
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Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Chapter One:

JUNIPER
All men are born condemned, so the wise say. All suckle the breast of Death.

All bow before that Silent Monarch. That Lord in Shadow lifts a finger. A
feather flutters to the earth. There is no reason in His song. The good go
young. The wicked prosper. He is king of the Chaos Lords, His breath stills all
souls.

We found a city dedicated to His worship, long ago, but so old now it has lost
that dedication. The dark majesty of his godhead has frayed, been forgotten by
all but those who stand in his shadow. But Juniper faced a more immediate fear,

a specter from yesteryear leaking into the present upon a height overlooking the
city. And because of that the Black Company went there, to that strange city far
beyond the bounds of the Lady's empire. . . . But this is not the beginning. In
the beginning we were far away. Only two old friends and a handful of men we
would meet later stood nose-to-nose with the shadow.

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Chapter Two:

TALLY ROADSIDE
The children's heads popped from the weeds like groundhog heads. They watched
the approaching soldiers. The boy whispered, “Must be a thousand of them.” The
column stretched back and back. The dust it raised drifted up the face of a far
hill. The creak and jangle of harness grew ever louder.

The day was hot. The children were sweating. Their thoughts lingered on a nearby
brook and a dip in a pool they had found there. But they had been set to watch
the road. Rumor said the Lady meant to break the renascent Rebel movement in
Tally province.

And here her soldiers came. Closer now. Grim, hard-looking men. Veterans. Easily
old enough to have helped create the disaster which had befallen the Rebel six
years ago, claiming, among a quarter million men, their father.

“It's them!” the boy gasped. Fear and awe filled his voice. Grudging admiration
edged it. “That's the Black Company.”

The girl was no student of the enemy. “How do you know?”

The boy indicated a bear of a man on a big roan. He had silvery hair. His
bearing said he was accustomed to command. "That's the one they call the
Captain. The little black one beside him would be the wizard called One-Eye. See
his hat?

That's how you tell. The ones behind them must be Elmo and the Lieutenant."

“Are any of the Taken with them?” The girl rose higher, for a better look.

“Where are the other famous ones?” She was the younger. The boy, at ten, already
considered himself a soldier of the White Rose. He yanked his sister down.

“Stupid! Want them to see you?” “So what if they do?” The boy sneered. She had
believed their uncle Neat when he had said that the enemy would not harm
children. The boy hated his uncle. The man had no guts.

Nobody pledged to the White Rose had any guts. They just played at fighting the
Lady. The most daring thing they did was ambush the occasional courier. At least
the enemy had courage. They had seen what they had been sent to see. He touched
the girl's wrist. “Let's go.” They scurried through the weeds, toward the wooded
creek bank.

A shadow lay upon their path. They looked up and went pale. Three horsemen
stared down at them. The boy gaped. Nobody could have slipped up unheard.

“Goblin!” The small, frog-faced man in the middle grinned. "At your service,

laddy-boy."

The boy was terrified, but his mind remained functional. He shouted, “Run!” If
one of them could escape. . . .

Goblin made a circular gesture. Pale pink fire tangled his fingers. He made a
throwing motion. The boy fell, fighting invisible bonds like a fly caught in a
spider's web. His sister whimpered a dozen feet away.

“Pick them up,” Goblin told his companions. “They should tell an interesting
tale.”

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Chapter Three:

JUNIPER: THE IRON LILY
The Lily stands on Floral Lane in the heart of the Buskin, Juniper's worst slum,

where the taste of death floats on every tongue and men value life less than
they do an hour of warmth or a decent meal. Its front sags against its neighbor
to the right, clinging for support like one of its own drunken patrons. Its rear
cants in the opposite direction. Its bare wood siding sports leprous patches of
grey rot. Its windows are boarded with scraps and chinked with rags. Its roof
boasts gaps through which the wind howls and bites when it blows off the
Wolander Mountains. There, even on a summer's day, the glaciers twinkle like
distant veins of silver.

Sea winds are little better. They bring a chill damp which gnaws the bones and
sends ice floes scampering across the harbor.

The shaggy arms of the Wolanders reach seaward, flanking the River Port, forming
cupped hands which hold the city and harbor. The city straddles the river,

creeping up the heights on both sides.

Wealth rises in Juniper, scrambling up and away from the river. The people of
the Buskin, when they lift their eyes from their misery, see the homes of the
wealthy above, noses in the air, watching one another across the valley.

Higher still, crowning the ridges, are two castles. On the southern height
stands Duretile, hereditary bastion of the Dukes of Juniper. Duretile is in
scandalous disrepair. Most every structure in Juniper is.

Below Duretile lies the devotional heart of Juniper, the Enclosure, beneath
which lie the Catacombs. There half a hundred generations rest, awaiting the Day
of Passage, guarded by the Custodians of the Dead. On the north ridge stands an
incomplete fortress called, simply, the black castle. Its architecture is alien.

Grotesque monsters leer from its battlements. Serpents writhe in frozen agonies
upon its walls. There are no joints in the obsidian-like material. And the place
is growing.

The people of Juniper ignore the castle's existence, its growth. They do not
want to know what is happening up there. Seldom do they have time to pause in
their struggle for survival to lift their eyes that high.

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Chapter Four:

TALLY AMBUSH
I drew a seven, spread, discarded a trey, and stared at a lone ace. To my left,

Pawnbroker muttered, “That did it. He's down to a rock.”

I eyed him curiously. “What makes you say that?”

He drew, cursed, discarded. “You get a face like a corpse when you've got it
cold, Croaker. Even your eyes.”

Candy drew, cursed, discarded a five. “He's right, Croaker. You get so
unreadable you're readable. Come on, Otto.”

Otto stared at his hand, then at the pile, as though he could conjure victory
from the jaws of defeat. He drew. “Shit.” He discarded his draw, a royal card. I
showed them my ace and raked in my winnings.

Candy stared over my shoulder while Otto gathered the cards. His eyes were hard
and cold. “What?” I asked.

“Our host is working up his courage. Looking for a way to get out and warn
them.”

I turned. So did the others. One by one the tavern-keeper and his customers
dropped their gazes and shrank into themselves. All but the tall, dark man
seated alone in shadows near the fireplace. He winked and lifted a mug, as if in
salute. I scowled. His response was a smile.

Otto dealt.

“One hundred ninety-three,” I said.

Candy frowned. “Damn you, Croaker,” he said, without emotion. I had been
counting hands. They were perfect ticks of the clocks of our lives as brothers
of the Black Company. I had played over ten thousand hands since the battle at
Charm. Only the gods themselves know how many I played before I started keeping
track.

“Think they got wind of us?” Pawnbroker asked. He was edgy. Waiting does that.

“I don't see how.” Candy arrayed his hand with exaggerated care. A dead
giveaway. He had something hot. I reexamined mine. Twenty-one. Probably get
burned, but the best way to stop him. . . . I went down. “Twenty-one.”

Otto sputtered. “You son-of-a-bitch.” He laid down a hand strong for going low.

But it added to twenty-two because of one royal card. Candy had three nines, an
ace and a trey. Grinning, I raked it in again.

“You win this one, we're going to check your sleeves,” Pawnbroker grumbled. I
collected the cards and started shuffling.

The back door hinges squealed. Everyone froze, stared at the kitchen door. Men
stirred beyond it.

“Madle! Where the hell are you?”

The tavern-keeper looked at Candy, agonized. Candy cued him. The taverner
called, “Out here, Neat.”

Candy whispered, “Keep playing.” I started dealing.

A man of forty came from the kitchen. Several others followed. All wore dappled
green. They had bows across their backs. Neat said, "They must've got the kids.

I don't know how, but. . . .“He saw something in Madle's eyes. ”What's the
matter?"

We had Madle sufficiently intimidated. He did not give us away.

Staring at my cards, I drew my spring tube. My companions did likewise.

Pawnbroker discarded the card he had drawn, a deuce. He usually tries to go low.

His play betrayed his nervousness.

Candy snagged the discard and spread an ace-deuce-trey run. He discarded an
eight.

One of Neat's companions whined, “I told you we shouldn't send kids.” It sounded
like breathing life into an old argument.

“I don't need any I-told-you-so,” Neat growled. “Madle, I spread the word for a
meeting. We'll have to scatter the outfit.”

“We don't know nothing for sure, Neat,” another green man said. “You know kids.”

“You're fooling yourself. The Lady's hounds are on our trail.”

The whiner said, “I told you we shouldn't hit those. ...” He fell silent,

realizing, a moment too late, that strangers were present, that the regulars all
looked ghastly.

Neat went for his sword.

There were nine of them, if you counted Madle and some customers who got
involved. Candy overturned the card table. We tripped the catches on our spring
tubes. Four poisoned darts snapped across the common room. We drew swords.

It lasted only seconds.

“Everybody all right?” Candy asked.

“Got a scratch,” Otto said. I checked it. Nothing to worry about.

“Back behind the bar, friend,” Candy told Madle, whom he had spared. “The rest
of you, get this place straightened up. Pawnbroker, watch them. They even think
about getting out of line, kill them.”

“What do I do with the bodies?”

“Throw them down the well.”

I righted the table again, sat down, unfolded a sheet of paper. Sketched upon it
was the chain of command of the insurgents in Tally. I blacked out NEAT. It
stood at mid-level. “Madle,” I said. “Come here.”

The barkeep approached with the eagerness of a dog to a whipping.

“Take it easy. You'll get through this all right. If you cooperate. Tell me who
those men were.”

He hemmed and hawed. Predictably.

“Just names,” I said. He looked at the paper, frowning. He could not read.

“Madle? Be a tight place to swim, down a well with a bunch of bodies.”

He gulped, surveyed the room. I glanced at the man near the fireplace. He hadn't
moved during the encounter. Even now he watched with apparent indifference.

Madle named names.

Some were on my list and some were not. Those that were not I assumed to be
spear carriers. Tally had been well and reliably scouted.

The last corpse went out. I gave Madle a small gold piece. He goggled. His
customers regarded him with unfriendly eyes. I grinned. “For services rendered.”

Madle blanched, stared at the coin. It was a kiss of death. His patrons would
think he had helped set the ambush. “Gotcha,” I whispered. “Want to get out of
this alive?”

He looked at me in fear and hatred. “Who the hell are you guys?” he demanded in
a harsh whisper.

“The Black Company, Madle. The Black Company.”

I don't know how he managed, but he went even whiter.

Black Company N 2 - Shadows Linger
Chapter Five:

JUNIPER: MARRON SHED
The day was cold and grey and damp, still, misty, and sullen. Conversation in
the Iron Lily consisted of surly monosyllables uttered before a puny fire.

Then the drizzle came, drawing the curtains of the world in tight. Brown and
grey shapes hunched dispiritedly along the grubby, muddy street. It was a day
ripped full-grown from the womb of despair. Inside the Lily, Marron Shed looked
up from his mug-wiping. Keeping the dust off, he called it. Nobody was using his
shoddy stoneware because nobody was buying his cheap, sour wine. Nobody could
afford it.

The Lily stood on the south side of Floral Lane. Shed's counter faced the
doorway, twenty feet deep into the shadows of the common room. A herd of tiny
tables, each with its brood of rickety stools, presented a perilous maze for the
customer coming out of sunlight. A half-dozen roughly cut support pillars formed
additional obstacles. The ceiling beams were too low for a tall man. The boards
of the floor were cracked and warped and creaky, and anything spilled ran
downhill.

BOOK: Shadows Linger
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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