Authors: Glen Cook
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Got to be for Harriet McDougal,
whose gentle hands
guided Croaker and the Company
out of the darkness
With Special Thanks to
Lee Childs of North Hollywood,
for historical research
and valued suggestions
We seven remained at the crossroads, watching the dust from the eastern way. Even irrepressible One-Eye and Goblin were stricken by the finality of the hour. Otto’s horse whickered. He closed her nostrils with one hand, patted her neck with the other, quieting her. It was a time for contemplation, the final emotional milemark of an era.
Then there was no more dust. They were gone. Birds began to sing, so still did we remain. I took an old notebook from my saddlebag, settled in the road. In a shaky hand I wrote:
The end has come. The parting is done. Silent, Darling, and the Torque brothers have taken the road to Lords. The Black Company is no more.
Yet I will continue to keep the Annals, if only because a habit of twenty-five years is so hard to break. And, who knows? Those to whom I am obliged to carry them may find the account interesting. The heart is stilled but the corpse stumbles on. The Company is dead in fact but not in name.
And we, O merciless gods, stand witness to the power of names.
I replaced the book in my saddlebag. “Well, that’s that.” I swatted the dust off the back of my lap, peered down our own road into tomorrow. A low line of greening hills formed a fencerow over which sheeplike tufts began to bound. “The quest begins. We have time to cover the first dozen miles.”
That would leave only seven or eight thousand more.
I surveyed my companions.
One-Eye was the oldest by a century, a wizard, wrinkled and black as a dusty prune. He wore an eyepatch and a floppy, battered black felt hat. That hat seemed to suffer every conceivable misfortune, yet survived every indignity.
Likewise Otto, a very ordinary man. He had been wounded a hundred times and had survived. He almost believed himself favored of the gods.
Otto’s sidekick was Hagop, another man with no special color. But another survivor. My glance surprised a tear.
Then there was Goblin. What is there to say of Goblin? The name says it all, and yet nothing? He was another wizard, small, feisty, forever at odds with One-Eye, without whose enmity he would curl up and die. He was the inventor of the frog-faced grin.
We five have been together twenty-some years. We have grown old together. Perhaps we know one another too well. We form limbs of a dying organism. Last of a mighty, magnificent, storied line. I fear we, who look more like bandits than the best soldiers in the world, denigrate the memory of the Black Company.
Two more. Murgen, whom One-Eye sometimes calls Pup, was twenty-eight. The youngest. He joined the Company after our defection from the empire. He was a quiet man of many sorrows, unspoken, with no one and nothing but the Company to call his own, yet an outside and lonely man even here.
As are we all. As are we all.
Lastly, there was Lady, who used to be the Lady. Lost Lady, beautiful Lady, my fantasy, my terror, more silent than Murgen, but from a different cause: despair. Once she had it all. She gave it up. Now she has nothing.
Nothing she knows to be of value.
That dust on the Lords road was gone, scattered by a chilly breeze. Some of my beloved had departed my life forever.
No sense staying around. “Cinch them up,” I said, and set an example. I tested the ties on the pack animals. “Mount up. One-Eye, you take the point.”
Finally, a hint of spirit as Goblin carped, “I have to eat
dust?” If One-Eye had point that meant Goblin had rearguard. As wizards they were no mountain movers, but they were useful. One fore and one aft left me feeling far more comfortable.
“About his turn, don’t you think?”
“Things like that don’t deserve a turn,” Goblin said. He tried to giggle but only managed a smile that was a ghost of his usual toadlike grin.
One-Eye’s answering glower was not much pumpkin, either. He rode out without comment.
Murgen followed fifty yards behind, a twelve-foot lance rigidly upright. Once that lance had flaunted our standard. Now it trailed four feet of tattered black cloth. The symbolism lay on several levels.
We knew who we were. It was best that others did not. The Company had too many enemies.
Hagop and Otto followed Murgen, leading pack animals. Then came Lady and I, also with tethers behind. Goblin trailed us by seventy yards. And thus we always traveled for we were at war with the world. Or maybe it was the other way around.
I might have wished for outriders and scouts, but there was a limit to what seven could accomplish. Two wizards were the next best thing.
We bristled with weaponry. I hoped we looked as easy as a hedgehog does to a fox.
The eastbound road dropped out of sight. I was the only one to look back in hopes Silent had found a vacancy in his heart. But that was a vain fantasy. And I knew it.
In emotional terms we had parted ways with Silent and Darling months ago, on the blood-sodden, hate-drenched battleground of the Barrowland.