Incessant wind sweeps the plain. It mutters across grey pavements that sweepfrom horizon to horizon. It sings around scattered black pillars, a chorus ofghosts. It tumbles leaves and scatters dust come from afar. It teases the hair of acorpse that has lain undisturbed for a generation, mummifying. Impishly, thegale tosses a leaf into the cadaver’s silently screaming mouth, tugs it away again. The wind carries the breath of winter.
Lightning leaps from pillar to ebon pillar like a child skittering from base tobase in a game of tag. For a moment there is color on that spectral plain.
The pillars might be mistaken for relics of a fallen city. They are not. They aretoo few and too randomly placed. Nor has a one ever fallen, though many havebeen gnawed deeply by the teeth of the hungry wind.
. . . fragments . . .
. . . just blackened fragments, crumbling between my fingers.
Browned page corners that reveal half a dozen words in a crabbed hand, their context no longer known.
All that remains of two volumes of the Annals. A thousand hours of labor. Four years of history. Gone forever.
Or are they?
I do not want to go back. I do not want to relive the horror. I do not want to reclaim the pain. There is pain too deep to withstand right here, right now. There is no way to recapture the totality of that awfulness, anyway. The mind and heart, safely over to the farther shore, simply refuse to encompass the enormity of the voyage.
And there is no time. There is a war on.
Always there is a war on.
Uncle Doj wants something. Just as well to stop now. Teardrops make the ink run.
He is going to make me drink some strange philtre.
Fragments . . .
. . . all around, fragments of my work, my life, my love and my pain, scattered in this bleak season. . . .
And in the darkness, shards of time.
Hey, there! Welcome to the city of the dead. Don’t mind those guys staring. Ghosts don’t see a lot of strangers—at least of a friendly persuasion. You’re right. They do look hungry. That happens during these siege things.
Try not to look too much like a lamb roast.
Think that’s a joke? Stay away from the Nar.
Welcome to Dejagore, what the Taglians call this deathtrap. The teeny brown Shadowlanders the Black Company grabbed it from call it Stormgard. People who actually live here always called it Jaicur—even when that was a crime. And who knows what the Nyueng Bao call it. And who cares, eh? They aren’t talking and they aren’t part of the equation anyway.
That’s one of them. That rascal there, no meat on him and a skull face. Everybody around here is some shade of brown but theirs is different. It has a grey cast to it. Almost deathly. You won’t mistake a Nyueng Bao for anything else.
Their eyes are like polished coal no fire will ever warm.
Sounds like Mogaba, the Nar and the First Legion rooting out Shadowlanders again. Some get inside almost every night. They are like field mice. You just can’t get rid of them all.
Found some the other day that had been in hiding since the Company took the city.
How about that smell out there? It was worse before the Shadowlanders started burying the bodies. Maybe a shovel was a little too complicated a machine.
Those long mounds that radiate from the city like spokes have corpses stacked like cordwood inside. Sometimes they didn’t pile the dirt on deep enough and the gasses of corruption burst the mounds open. That’s when you hope the wind is blowing their way.
You see how positively they are thinking, all the not-yet-filled-trenches they are digging. A lot of the dirt goes into the ramps.
The elephants are the worst. They take forever to rot. They tried burning them once, but all that did was irritate the buzzards. So where they could they just dragged the bodies over and incorporated them into their ramps.
Who? The ugly little guy with the uglier hat? That is One-Eye. You must have been warned about him.
How come One-Eye? On account of the eye patch. Clever, huh?
The other runt is Goblin. You should have been warned about him, too. No? Well, stay out of their way. All the time is best, but especially if they are arguing, and most particularly if they have been drinking. As wizards go they are no earthshakers but they are more than you will be able to handle.
Puny as they are, they are the main reason the Shadowlanders have stayed out there in the country roughing it, leaving the wallowable luxuries of the city to the Taglian troops and Black Company.
No, now pay attention. Goblin is the white one. All right, you’re right, he is overdue for his annual bath. Goblin is the one who looks like a toad. One-Eye is the one with the hat and the patch.
The guys in the once-upon-a-time-they-were-white tunics are Taglian soldiers. Every day now every one of them asks himself what damned fool notion made him enroll in the legions.
The folks wearing the colored sheets and unhappy expressions are locals. Jaicuri.
Fancy this. When the Company and the legions swooped down from the north and surprised Stormshadow they hailed the newcomers as liberators. They strew the streets with rose petals and favorite daughters.
Now the only reason they don’t stab their liberators in the back is that the alternative is worse. Now they are alive enough to starve and be abused.
Shadowspinner is not famous for kindness and kissing babies.
The kids all over? Those almost happy and fat urchins? Nyueng Bao. All Nyueng Bao.
The Jaicuri nearly stopped making babies after the Shadowmasters came. Most of the few that were born failed to survive the hard times since. The handful still breathing are protected more fiercely than any treasure. You won’t find them running naked through the streets, squealing and totally ignoring strangers.
Who are the Nyueng Bao? You never heard of them?
It is a good question. And a hard one to answer.
The Nyueng Bao don’t talk to outsiders except through their Speaker but the word is that they are religious pilgrims who were on the homeward leg of a once-in-a-generation hadj who got trapped by circumstance. The Taglian soldiers say they hail from vast river delta swamps west of Taglios. They are a primitive, minuscule minority abhorred by the majority Gunni, Vehdna, and Shadar religions.
The whole Nyueng Bao people makes the pilgrimage. And the whole people got caught right in the deep shit here in Dejagore.
They need to work on their timing. Or they should sharpen their skills at appeasing their gods.
The Black Company cut a deal with the Nyueng Bao. Goblin and their Speaker gobbled for half an hour and it was settled. The Nyueng Bao would ignore the Black Company and Taglians for whom the Company is responsible. The Nyueng Bao would be ignored in turn.
It works. Mostly.
Their men are a sort you don’t want to upset. They don’t take shit from anybody.
They never start anything—except, according to the Taglians, by being too damned stubborn to do what they are told.
Sounds like One-Eye style reasoning at work there.
Just kick those crows. They’re getting too goddamn bold! Think they own the place. . . . Hey! You got one. Grab it! They aren’t good eating but they are a sight better than no eating at all.
Shit. Got away. Hell, that happens. Head for the citadel. You get your best look at the layout from up there.
Those guys? They are Company. Never guess, huh? White guys down here? The one with the wild hair is Big Bucket. He turned into a pretty fair sergeant. He is just crazy enough. With him are Otto and Hagop. They have been around longer than anybody but Goblin and One-Eye. Those two have been Old Crew for generations. One-Eye ought to be sneaking up on two hundred.
That bunch is Company, too. Shirking work. The antique lunger is Wheezer. Not much good for anything. How he got through the big brawl no one knows. They say he busted heads with the best of them.
The other two black guys are the Geek and the Freak. No telling why. Nothing wrong with them. Look like a couple of rubbed ebony statues, don’t they?
You think these names just come out of a hat? They earn them the hard way. Usually they come out from under One-Eye’s hat, really. Yeah, they probably have real names. But they have been called by nicknames so long even they have trouble remembering.
Goblin and One-Eye are the main ones not to forget. And to remember not to put behind you. They do not deal well with temptation.
This is Glimmers Like Dewdrops Street. Nobody knows why. A real mouthful, right? You ought to hear it in Jaicuri. A jawbreaker. This is the route the Company took coming in to snatch the tower. Maybe they will rename it Runs With Blood Street.
Yeah, the Company charged through here in the heart of the night, killing anything that moved, and jammed in there before they had any idea what was happening. With Shape shifter’s help they roared on up the tower where they let him help finish off Stormshadow before they tagged him.
It was an old Company grudge. They owed Shifter from another generation, when Shifter, helping Soulcatcher break the city’s resistance, murdered One-Eye’s brother Tom-Tom when the Company was in service to the Syndic of Beryl. Croaker, One-Eye and Goblin, Otto and Hagop are the only guys left from those days. Hell, Croaker is gone now. Isn’t he? History-worshipping slob is buried out there in one of those mounds. Fertilizing the plain. Mogaba is the Old Man now. Sort of, in his own mind.
Those who form it come and go but the Company is forever. Every brother, great or small, is a snack just not yet snapped up by the devouring maw of time.
Those big black monster men watching the gate are the Nar. They are descendants of the Black Company of centuries ago. Scary beasts, a...