The wounded man thought he was trapped in a drug dream. He’d been a physician. He knew drugs did strange things to the mind. Dreams were strange enough... He couldn’t wake up.
Some fractured shard of rationality lodged in a corner of his brain watched, sensed, wondered vaguely as he drifted eternally a few feet above a landscape he seldom saw. Sometimes branches passed overhead. Sometimes there were hills in the corners of his eyes. Once he wakened while drifting through tall grass. Once he felt he was passing over a broad expanse of water.
Occasionally a huge black horse looked down at him. He thought he knew the beast but couldn’t assemble the pieces in his mind.
Sometimes a figure in shapeless robing bestrode the beast, stared down out of an empty cowl.
These things were all real, he suspected. But they fell into no meaningful pattern. Only the horse seemed familiar.
Hell. He couldn’t recall who he was. His thoughts wouldn’t sequence. Probable pasts kept intruding on the apparent now, often as real.
Those intrusions were shards of battle, uncertain on the jagged edges, bright as blood in the center. Great slaughters, all. Sometimes names attached themselves. Lords. Charm. Beryl. Roses. Horse. Dejagore. Juniper. The Barrowland. Queen’s Bridge. Dejagore again. Dejagore often.
Infrequently he recalled a face. The woman had marvellous blue eyes, long black hair, and always wore black. She must have been important to him. Yes. The only woman... Whenever she appeared she vanished again in moments, replaced by the faces of men. Unlike the bloodlettings, he could put no names to them. Yet he had known them. He felt they were ghosts, waiting to welcome him among them.
Occasionally pain consumed his chest. He was his most alert when it was most intense. The world almost made sense then. But the creature in black would come and he would tumble back amongst the dreams.
Was the black companion Death? Was this his passage to the nether realm? His mind wouldn’t function well enough to examine the proposition.
He hadn’t been religious. He’d believed that death was it. When you died you were dead, like a squished bug or drowned rat, and your immortality was in the minds of those you left behind.
He slept far more than he was awake. Thus time eluded him.
He experienced a moment of profound deja vu as he passed beneath a solitary half-dead tree, shortly before entering a dark wood. That tree had been important somehow, sometime.
He drifted through the wood, out, across a clearing, in through the entrance of a building. It was dark inside.
A lamp found life at the edge of his vision. He descended. A flat surface pressed against his back.
The figure in black came, bent over him. A hand concealed in a black glove touched him. Consciousness fled.
He awakened ravenous. A lance of agony bored through his chest, throbbed. He was drenched in his own sweat. His head ached, felt as though it was stuffed with sodden cotton. He was running a fever. His mind worked well enough to catalog symptoms and conclude that he had been wounded and was suffering from a severe cold. That could be a lethal combination.
Memories came tumbling back like a rowdy litter of kittens, all over one another, not making much sense.
He’d led forty thousand men into battle outside Dejagore. It hadn’t gone well. He’d been trying to rally the troops. An arrow out of nowhere had driven through his breastplate and chest, miraculously finding nothing vital. He’d fallen. His standardbearer had donned his armor, trying to turn the tide with a valiant fiction.
Obviously Murgen had failed.
He made a strangling sound through a desert throat.
The figure in black appeared.
Now he remembered. It had dogged the Black Company down the length of the world, accompanied by a horde of crows. He tried to sit up.
The pain was too much for him. He was too weak.
He knew this dread thing!
It came out of nowhere, a lightning bolt, but it was conviction.
The impossible. The dead walking...
Soulcatcher. One-time mentor. One-time mistress of the Black Company. More recently a deadly enemy, but still long ago. Supposedly dead for a decade and a half.
He’d been there. He’d seen her slain. He’d helped hunt her down...
He tried to rise again, some vague force driving him to fight the unfightable.
A gloved hand stayed him. A gentle voice told him, “Don’t strain yourself. You aren’t healing well. You haven’t been eating or taking enough fluids. Are you awake? Are you sensible?”
He managed a feeble nod.
“Good. I’m going to prop you up in a slightly elevated position. I’m going to feed you broth. Don’t waste energy. Let your strength come back.”
She propped him, had him sip through a reed. He downed a pint of broth. And kept it down. Soon a glimmer of strength trickled through his flesh.
“That’s enough for now. Now we’ll get you cleaned up.”
He was a disgusting mess. “How long?” he croaked.
She placed a pot of water in his hands, inserted another reed. “Sip. Don’t talk.” She started cutting his clothing off him.
“It’s been seven days since you were hit, Croaker.” Her voice had become another voice entirely. It changed every time she paused. This voice was masculine, mocking, though he wasn’t the mockery’s object. “Your comrades still control Dejagore, to the embarrassment of the Shadowmasters. Your Mogaba is in command. He’s stubborn but he could be embarrassed himself. And however stubborn he is, he can’t hold out forever. The powers ranged against him are too great.”
He tried to ask a question. She forestalled him. The mocking voice asked, “Her?” Wicked chuckle. “Yes. She survived. There’d be no point to this if she hadn’t.”
A new voice, female but as hard as a diamond arrowpoint, snarled, “She tried to kill me! Ha-ha! Yes. You were there, my love. You helped. But I don’t hold a grudge. You were under her spell. You didn’t know what you were doing. You’ll redeem yourself by helping me take my revenge.”
The man didn’t respond.
She bathed him. She was free with the water.
He’d been diminished by his wound but he was still a big man, four inches over six feet tall. He was about forty-five years old. His hair was an average, unnoteworthy brown. He’d begun to go bald in front. His eyes were hard, humorless, icy blue, narrow and deeply set. He had a ragged, greying beard surrounding a thin-lipped mouth that seldom smiled. His face bore scattered reminders of a childhood pox and more than a few memories of acne. He might have been moderately good-looking once. Time had been unkind. Even in repose his face looked hard and a little off center.
He didn’t look like what he had been all his adult life, the Black Company’s historian and physician. His appearance was more suited to the role he had inherited, that of Captain.
He’d described himself as looking like a child molester waiting for a chance to strike. He wasn’t comfortable with his appearance.
Soulcatcher scrubbed him with a vigor that recalled his mother’s. “Don’t take the skin off.”
“Your wound is healing slowly. You’ll have to tell me what I did wrong.” She’d never been a healer. She was a destroyer.
Croaker was puzzled by her interest. He wasn’t valuable. What was he? Just a dinged-up old mercenary, alive well beyond the expectations of his kind. He squeaked a question.
She laughed, voice filled with childlike delight. “Vengeance, dear. A simple, gentle, guileful vengeance. And I won’t lay a hand on her. I’ll let her do it to herself.” She patted his cheek, drew a finger along the line of his jaw.
“It took a while but I knew the moment was inevitable. Fated. The consummation, the exchange of the magic, deadly three words. Fated. I sensed it before you met.” Again the childlike laughter. “She was an age finding something so precious. My vengeance will be to take it away.”
Croaker closed his eyes. He could not yet reason closely. He understood only that he was in no immediate danger. The plot was easily voided. He would become a tool of no value, broken.
He put it out of mind. First he had to heal. Time enough later to do what had to be done.
More laughter. This from a woman adult and knowing. “Remember when we campaigned together, Croaker? The trick we played on Raker? The fun we had tormenting Limper?”
He grunted. He remembered. Everything but the fun.
“Remember how you always thought I could read your mind?”
He remembered that. And the terror it had inspired. That old fear crept back.
“You do remember.” She laughed again. “I’m so glad. We’re going to have such fun. The whole world thinks we’re dead. You can get away with anything when you’re dead.” Her laugh gained an edge of madness. “We’ll haunt them, Croaker. That’s what we’ll do.”
He’d regained enough strength to walk. With help. His captor made him walk, forced him to gain strength. But still he slept most of the time. And dreamed terrible dreams when he did.
The place anchored the dreams. He didn’t know that. His dreams told him it wasn’t a good place, that the very trees and earth and stone remembered evils done there.
He felt they were true dreams but found no supporting evidence while he was awake. Unless he counted the ominous crows. Always there were the crows, tens and hundreds and thousands of crows.
Standing in the doorway to their shelter-a half-ruined stone structure, buried in vegetation, in the heart of a dark wood-he asked, “What is this place? The wood where I chased you a few months ago?”
“Yes. It’s the holy grove of those who worship Kina. If we cleared the creepers you could see carved representations. Once it was important to the Black Company, who took it from the Shadar. The ground is filled with bones.”
He turned slowly, looked into her empty cowl. He wouldn’t look at the box she carried. He knew what must be in it. “The Black Company?”
“They made sacrifices here. One hundred thousand prisoners of war.”
Croaker blanched. That wasn’t something he wanted to hear. He had a long romance with the history of the Company. There was no place in that for a wicked past. “Truth?”
“Truth, my love. I’ve seen the books the wizard Smoke concealed from you in Taglios. They include the missing volumes of your Annals. Your forebears were cruel men. Their mission required the sacrifice of a million souls.”
His stomach knotted. “To what? To whom? Why?” She hesitated. He knew she wasn’t being honest when she said, “That wasn’t clear. Your lieutenant Mogaba might know, though.”
It wasn’t what she said but the way she said it, the voice she used. He shuddered. And he believed. Mogaba had been strange and secretive throughout his association with the Company. What was he doing to the Company’s traditions now?
“Kina’s disciples come here twice a year. Their Festival of Lights comes in a month. We have to finish before then.”
Troubled, Croaker asked, “Why are we here?” “We’re recovering our health.” She laughed. “Where we won’t be bothered. Everyone shuns this place. Once I’ve nursed you back you’re going to help me.” Still amused, she pushed back her cowl. She had no head. She lifted that box she always carried, a battered
thing a foot to a side, opened a little door. A face looked out. It was a beautiful face, like the face of his lover, though less careworn and lacking life’s animation.
His stomach knotted again. He recalled the day that head had been struck from its body, to lie in the dust staring up at him and Lady. Her sister. It had been a blow well-earned. Soulcatcher had betrayed the Lady. Soulcatcher had meant to supplant her sister as ruler of the empire.
“I can’t do anything like that.”
“Of course you can. And you will. Because it will keep both of you alive. We all want to live, don’t we? I want her to live because I want her to hurt. I want to live because I want to watch her hurt. You want to live because of her, because you revere the Company, because...” Gentle laughter. “Because where there’s life there’s hope.”