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Chapter Two

The elevation was not good. The distance was extreme. But Willow Swan knew what he was seeing. Theyre getting their butts kicked.

Armies contended before the city Dejagore, at the center of a circular, hill-encompassed plain. Swan and three companions watched.

Blade grunted agreement. Cordy Mather, Swans oldest friend, said nothing. He just tried to kick the stuffing out of a rock.

The army they favored was losing.

Swan and Mather were whites, blond and brunette, hailing from Roses, a city seven thousand miles north of the killing ground. Blade was a black giant of uncertain origins, a dangerous man with little to say. Swan and Mather had rescued him from crocodiles a few years earlier. He had stuck. The three were a team.

Swan cursed softly, steadily, as the battle situation worsened.

The fourth man did not belong. The team would not have had him if he volunteered. People called him Smoke. Officially, he was the fire marshall of Taglios, the city-nation whose army was losing. In reality he was the Taglian court wizard. He was a nut-brown little man whose very existence annoyed Swan.

Thats your army out there, Smoke, Willow growled. It goes down, you go down. Bet the Shad-owmasters would love to lay hands on you. Sorceries yowled and barked on the battlefield. Maybe make marmalade out of you. Unless youve cut a deal already.

Ease up, Willow, Mather said. Hes doing something.

Swan looked at the butternut-colored runt. Sure enough. But what?

Smoke had his eyes closed. He mumbled and muttered. Sometimes his voice crackled and sizzled like bacon in an overheated pan.

He aint doing nothing to help the Black Company. You quit talking to yourself, you old buzzard. We got a problem. Our guys are getting whipped. You want to try to turn that around? Before I turn you over my knee?

The old man opened his eyes. He stared across the plain. His expression was not pleasant. Swan doubted that the little geeks eyes were good enough to make out details. But you never knew with Smoke. With him everything was mask and pretense.

Dont be a moron, Swan. Im one man, too little and too old. There are Shadowmasters down there. They can stomp me like a roach.

Swan fussed and grumbled. People he knew were dying.

Smoke snapped, All I can do-all any of us can do-is attract attention. Do you really want the Shadowmasters to notice you?

Theyre just the Black Company, eh? They took their pay, they take their chances? Even if forty thousand Taglians go down with them?

Smokes lips shrank into a mean little prune.

On the plain a human tide washed around a mound where the Black Company standard had been planted for a last stand. The tide swept on toward the hills.

You wouldnt be happy about the way things are going, would you? Swans voice was dangerous, no longer carping. Smoke was a political animal, worse than a crocodile. Crocs might eat their young but their treacheries were predictable.

Though irked, Smoke replied in a voice almost tender. They have accomplished more than we dreamed.

The plain was dense with the dead and dying, man and beast. Mad war elephants careened around, respecting no allegiance. Only one Taglian legion had maintained its integrity. It had fought its way to a city gate and was covering the flight of other Taglians. Flames rose beyond the city from a military encampment. The Company had scored that much success against the apparent victors.

Smoke said, Theyve lost a battle but they saved Taglios. They slew one of the Shadowmasters. Theyve made it impossible for the others to attack Taglios. Those will spend their remaining troops recapturing Dejagore.

Swan sneered. Just pardon me if I dont dance for joy. I liked those guys. I didnt like the way you planned to shaft them.

Smokes temper was strained. They werent fighting for Taglios, Swan. They wanted to use us to hammer through the Shadowlands to Khatovar. Which could be worse than a Shadowmasters conquest.

Swan knew rationalization when he stepped in it. And because they wouldnt lick your boots, even if they were willing to save your asses from the Shadowmasters, you figure its handy, them getting caught here. A pity, say I. Wouldve been some swell show, watching your footwork if theyd come up winners and you had to deliver your end of the bargain.

Ease up, Willow, Mather said.

Swan ignored him. Call me a cynic, Smoke. But Id bet about anything you and the Radisha had it scoped out to screw them from the start. Eh? Wouldnt do to have them slice through the Shadowlands. But why the hell not? I never did get that part.

It aint over yet, Swan, Blade said. Wait. Smoke going to get his turn to cry.

The others gawked at Blade. He spoke so seldom that when he did they knew it meant something. What did he know?

Swan asked, You see something I missed?

Cordy snapped, Damn it, will you calm down?

Why the hell should I? The whole damned world is swamped by conniving old farts like Smoke. They been screwing the rest of us since the gods started keeping time. Look at this little poof. Keeps whining about how hes got to lay low and not let the Shadowmasters find out about him. I think that means hes got no balls. That Lady... You know who she used to be? She had balls enough to face them. You give that half a think youll realize how she laid more on the line than this old freak ever could.

Calm down, Willow.

Calm down, hell. It aint right. Somebodys got to tell old farts like this to go suck rocks.

Blade grunted agreement. But Blade didnt like anyone in authority.

Swan, not as upset as he put on, noted that Blade was in position to whack the wizard if he got obnoxious.

Smoke smiled. Swan, once upon a time all us old farts were young loudmouths like you.

Mather stepped between them. Enough! Instead of squabbling, how about we get out of here before that mess catches up with us? Remnants of the battle swirled around the toes of the foothills. We can gather the garrisons from the towns north of here and collect everybody at Ghoja.

Swan agreed. Sourly. Yeah. Maybe some of the Company made it. He glowered at Smoke.

The old man shrugged. If some get out they can train a real army. Theyd have time enough now.

Yeah. And if the Prahbrindrah Drah and the Radisha was to get off their butts they might even line up a few real allies. Maybe come up with a wizard with a hair on his ass. One who wouldnt spend his whole life hiding out in the weeds.

Mather started down the back of the hill. Come on, Blade. Let them bicker.

After several seconds Smoke confessed, Hes right, Swan. Lets get on with it.

Willow tossed his long golden hair, looked at Blade. Blade jerked his head toward the horses below the hill. All right. Swan took a last look at the city and plain where the Black Company had died. But whats right is right and whats wrong is wrong.

And whats practical is practical and whats needful is necessary. Lets go.

Swan walked. He would remember that remark. He was determined to have the last word. Bullshit, Smoke. Thats bullshit. I seen a new side of you today. I dont like it and I dont trust it. Im going to watch you like your conscience.

They mounted up and headed north.

Chapter One | Dreams of Steel | Chapter Three