Croaker hobbled to the temple door, looked out. Soulcatcher was nowhere around. He hadn’t seen her for days. He wondered if he’d been abandoned. He doubted it. She’d just waited till he was able to care for himself, then had hurried off on some arcane business.
He thought of making a run for it. He knew the surrounding country. There was a village he could reach in a few hours, even at the pace he could make. But that escape would be no escape.
Soulcatcher was away but the crows had stayed to watch. They would stay with him. They would lead her to him. She had the horses. Those beasts could run forever without tiring. She could spot him a week’s lead and catch him.
This place was like an island outside the world. It was dark and depressing.
He started walking, going nowhere, moving for the sake of movement. The crows nagged at him. He ignored them, ignored the ache thumping in his chest. He strolled through the woods, to the countryside beyond, emerging near the half-dead tree.
He recalled it now. Before Dejagore and Ghoja he had come south to scout the terrain, had spied Soulcatcher watching, had chased her into these woods. He’d stood by that tree trying to decide what to do next-and an arrow had hit it, nearly taking off his nose. It had carried a message, telling him it wasn’t time for him to catch whomever he was chasing.
Then the Shadowmasters’ men had come after him and he’d been too busy running to give the place any more thought.
He walked up to the tree. Crows burdened its branches. He fingered the hole where the arrow had hit. She’d been watching over him then, hadn’t she? Not interfering but there just in case, maybe laying on a nudge or two to make sure he was around for her revenge.
A long, lazy hill lay before. He decided to ignore the crows. He kept walking.
The pain in his chest became insistent. He wasn’t ready for so much exercise. He couldn’t have gone far even without the crows keeping track.
As he paused to rest he wondered how much Soulcatcher had intruded on his affairs. Could she have had some hand in the outcome at Dejagore?
Destroying Stormbringer, who had worn the alias Stormshadow, had been easier than he’d expected. And getting Shapeshifter had been a breeze, too- though there’d been a little treachery to that, since Shifter had been helping Lady. Which reminded him. That girl. Shifter’s apprentice. She’d gotten away. She could be thinking of evening scores. Did Soulcatcher know about her? Better mention her next chance he got.
His heartbeat had fallen off toward normal. The pain had waned. He resumed walking. He reached the ridgeline and stood leaning against a gnarly grey piece of exposed rock, panting while crows circled and nattered. “Oh, shut up! I’m not going anywhere.”
Another outcrop nearby vaguely suggested a chair. He shuffled over and sat, surveyed his kingdom.
All Taglios could have been his if he’d won at Dejagore, had that been his ambition.
A flight of three crows arrowed in from the north, coming like racing pigeons, swirled into the flock, cawed some. The whole mob scattered. Odd.
He leaned back, thought about the battle’s aftermath. Mogaba was alive and holding the city against besieging Shadowmasters, according to Soulcatcher. Maybe a third of the army had managed to get inside the walls. Fine. A stubborn defense would keep them away from Taglios. But he didn’t care that much about Taglios. Nice people, but anybody who was anybody was thoroughly treacherous.
He was concerned about the few friends he’d left down south. Had any survived? Had they salvaged the Annals, those precious histories that were the time link cementing the Company? What had become of Murgen and the standard and his Widowmaker armor? Legend said the standard had been with the Company since the day it had marched from Khatovar.
What were those damned crows up to? Moments ago there had been a thousand of them. Now he couldn’t see a dozen. Those all glided at high altitude, drifting back and forth over something up the valley.
Had Khatovar become a hopeless dream? Had the last page of the Annals been written just four hundred miles from home?
Sudden memory from the first hours of their journey away from Dejagore. Just an image, of a man floating, writhing upon a lance. Moonshadow? Yes. And Moonshadow had been skewered upon that lance during the fighting. Skewered on the lance that supported the standard. It wasn’t lost! That heirloom more important than the Annals themselves was down there in the temple somewhere. He hadn’t seen it. She must have hidden it.
He glanced at a sky where cumulus marched across a turquoise field. The crows were closer, those few still aloft. He jerked, startled. One was headed his way like a winged missile.
It flapped, fluttered, very nearly suicided, making a landing on a rock pinnacle inches from his left hand. The bird said, “Don’t move!” in a perfectly intelligible voice.
He didn’t move, though instantly he had a dozen questions. It took no genius to understand that something significant was happening. The birds didn’t speak to him otherwise. In fact, they had only once before, bringing the warning that had allowed him to move in time to whip the Shadowmasters at Ghoja ford.
The crow hunkered down and became part of the rock. Croaker eased down a little himself, so he’d present no obviously human form against the skyline, then froze. Moments later he spied movement in the shallow valley before him.
It darted from cover to cover. Then there was more movement, and more. His heart hammered as he remembered the shadows the minions of the Shadowmasters had brought north.
These were no shadows. They were small brown men, but not of the race of the small brown men who had managed the shadows. Those had been cousins of the Taglians. Something familiar about these. But they were so far away.
It didn’t occur to them to look up where he was seated. Or if they did they couldn’t see him. They moved on down the valley.
Then there were more of them, maybe twenty-five, not sneaking like the others, who must have been scouts. He saw this bunch well enough to recall where he’d seen their kind before. On the great river that ran from the heart of the continent down past Taglios to the sea. He had fought them a year ago, two thousand miles north of here. They had blockaded the river against all commerce. The Company had opened the way, crushing them in a wild night-time battle where sorceries flashed and howled.
The main party was in sight. Eight men carried a ninth on a sedan of sorts. The ninth was a small figure so covered with clothing it looked like a pile of rags. As it came abreast of Croaker it let out a prolonged moan.
The Howler. One of the Ten Who Were Taken who had been servants of the Lady in her northern empire, a terrible wizard, thought slain in battle till that night on the river when he’d tried to even old scores against his former empress. Only the intercession of Shifter had driven him off.
Another moan escaped the sorcerer. It was a feeble shadow of the Howler’s usual wails. Probably trying to control his cries to avoid attracting attention.
Croaker sat so still his heart almost stopped. There was little in the world he wanted less than to attract attention now. His concentration was so intense he felt no discomfort from rock or chill breeze.
The party passed on, with more small brown men trailing behind, in rearguard. It was an hour before Croaker was confident that he had seen the last of them.
He had counted one hundred twenty-eight swamp warriors, plus the sorcerer. The warriors wouldn’t be much use so far out of their element. This terrain was alien to them. But the Howler... Terrain and climate and whatnot meant nothing to him.
Where was he headed? Didn’t take much to guess. Down to the Shadowlands. Why was more of a mystery, but probably not so great a one.
The Howler had been one of the Taken. Some of the Shadowmasters had been fugitive Taken, too. It seemed likely the survivors had made contact with their Former comrade and had negotiated some compact whereby he would replace the Shadowmasters who had fallen.
Lady was alive and at Ghoja, if Soulcatcher hadn’t lied. Not forty miles away. He wished he could make that journey. He wished there was some way he could get a message to her. She needed to know about this.
“Crow, I don’t know if you know what we just saw, but you’d better get word to your boss. We got trouble.” He got up and walked back to the temple, where he amused himself by trying to find the hidden Company standard.