Black Co (a)

                    the heft and the edge                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     10/6/2020










      Huaresh, Eastern Valdesia (The Skirt) 3057.7.18


      ‘You must keep them quiet. You must! I can’t do anything about the noise you’re all making.’ Signoren Bassalo tried hard to keep the panic from his voice but there was so little time. Another baby began to skrike and several of the smaller children were whimpering. ‘Andras, I’ll have to start now or they’ll be on us before I get a word spoken. You’ll have to do something about the noise. Get the babies under the stage at least.’

      ‘I’ll try, Signoren, but won’t it make them cry all the more?’

      ‘It’s what can be heard outside that counts, not in. I have to go.’

      Andras nodded. ‘It’s the only way. Do it right for us, Signoren, we know you can.’

      The Signoren could think of no reply. He shrugged, took one last look at the women and children and the old men all crowded into the spaces between the tables and benches, cast his eyes over the children’s pictures that covered the walls and then quickly hurried out through the front door.

      Outside the schoolhouse everything seemed as normal. It was a pleasant summers’ day of blue sky and high, white cloud. His newly painted cottage over by the brook looked prettier than ever: pink walls, climbing honeysuckle, a multitude of flowers bright in his garden. Further on was Claudia Bera’s tiny white house with its weedy vegetable patch. He’d been meaning to get the children to help her tidy up a bit: she was at least eighty now and marvellous for her age but some things were beyond her. Not that she’d admit it. They more or less had to frog-march her to the schoolhouse. ‘No black devil’s having me out of my home,’ she declared and would have stayed put if they’d let her.

      Of course there was no one in the village street that curved away beyond the white house. Up past the smithy at the top end a handful of young men had been set to let fly some arrows and then run off into the trees as fast as they could. Deeper into the village the others were hidden up between the houses on the forest side, behind sheds and water-butts, or crouching in the long grass along the brook’s edge; maybe forty all told. According to Serrio and his brother, the Black Company had left Ardache on the road for Huaresh more than two hours past. The brothers had ridden hard while the Company had dallied but still they could not have gained more than an hour. The last report that came in only five minutes ago said at least thirty frighteningly well-armed men were barely a mile away, looting the Gunez farm. When they tired of doing that they would come. Old man Gunez’ face when he heard the news was black with fury, his sons were cursing.

      Time to get on with it. He couldn’t start the spell too soon: every minute he could fool them before his strength ran out would be important. He could manage three hours or maybe a little more. All of the wealth of the village had been spirited off into the woods with the able-bodied or was hidden here in the schoolhouse. It would be hard to find. The cottages and houses, emptied of anything worth stealing, deserted by their owners, would be no use to them. They might set fires but surely they would leave.

      The Signoren walked briskly to the rear of the schoolhouse and climbed rather less briskly up the rickety bell tower he’d had built twenty years before. Of his fifty years a full twenty-five had been spent as teacher to the children of the village and of the woods and fields for miles around. He helped out with some healing along the way whenever old Carva’s herbs wouldn’t do the trick but he hardly ever had cause to use his power. The schooling of Errensea had made him half a wizard but he was never comfortable with magic and had mostly abandoned the art. There was something about wizardry that made him feel isolated when all he had ever wanted was to be a part of everything.

      And now the ‘everything’ he so treasured was under immense threat. A gang of cutthroats had been terrorising the region for almost a month now and today their path of violence and destruction would lead to his beloved Huaresh. From the top of the tower Bassalo could view the whole village. He could make out the young archers standing in the shadow of Rudy’s workshop, could see the white, chalky road disappearing under the cool arches of the Twelve Oaks Inn. The beer barrels had been broken less than half an hour before at Andras’ insistence. They must give the Black Company nothing to stay for. Some had argued they should let the Company have all the loot it could find while the people hid safe in the forest – but that had been tried before. In Reno, in Perdesh, according to reports, the Company had not been distracted by the lure of property. Their first intention and delight was all in killing and torture and destruction; the blood-hunt had merely fired their enthusiasm and ferocity. And that lust gave Andras the basis of his plan. They would give the Company someone to chase and they would try to make it seem the village had been abandoned. The men who would be doing the running were mostly confident their woodcraft would see them clear and safe. The women and children and the infirm could not run and so they would have to disappear from sight. And that disappearance would be down to the skills and strength of a fifty year-old half-wizard who had not tried anything so difficult for more than quarter of a century.

      It was an uncomfortable perch, squeezed in beside the bell, but he had to put discomfort to one side. He began with an exercise to clear his mind. There was no room for doubt or fear; he must box up his memories, his emotions, the distractions of his body, all of his hopes for the future. All he wanted inside his head was the schoolhouse, the field alongside and the words of the spell he intended to use.

      The schoolhouse was at the edge of the village, the road curved away from it, the brook circled behind. If the schoolhouse had not been built on this field no one bar the farmer would ever walk there. If he could hide the schoolhouse from common sight they would all be saved.

      The noise of cheering or jeering from the other end of the village reached him. He began the chant.

      It was so important to keep it going, to make sure the words never varied, to release his power into the spell in a steady trickle. Too much too soon and they would be lost. And at the same time he mustn’t let the boundaries wander: a shimmering in the air would draw attention; the edges must be clear and exact. He knew the schoolhouse and the path to it so well after twenty-five years, he knew the field beside it. He would overlay the one with the other.


      ‘Em’moreth il faro, an faro en dahar,

       Ancul le’avo en tra’are, io’tra’are en dahar.

       Em’moreth il faro, an faro en dahar…’


      Power and the direction of that power was the basis of this deception. There were simple tricks that could be done with mirrors and with hidden doors. The fairs were full of them. Such trickery could not work here. Bassalo created this illusion from within himself. He had to use the Language of Command to bend the power he held inside; it was the power within him that bent the light others would see.


       ‘Em’moreth il faro, an faro en dahar,

        Ancul le’avo en tra’are, io’tra’are en dahar.

        Em’moreth il faro, an faro en dahar,

        Ancul le’avo en tra’are, io’tra’are en dahar.

        Em’moreth il faro, an faro en dahar,

        Ancul le’avo en tra’are…’


      He stumbled over some of the words at first and found it difficult to establish the rhythm. Rhythm would be his friend, rhythm would give him the spell word perfect for as long as it would take. After the tenth pass it was there: the spell established, his concentration absolute. All he knew was the spell and the image of the field. His eyes were closed to anything that might be beyond the image. His ears were dead to the sounds below. There was only the spell and the image.

      If he’d been able to see he would have seen the young lads let loose their flurry of arrows and miss their targets because of the fear that took them. He would have seen one of the lads stumble as he ran for the woods. He would have seen that young man hacked to death and then beheaded. If he had heard the screaming and then the laughter of the man who carried the boy’s head on a pike, terror would have consumed him and whatever hope the village still had would be on a pike too.

      The Black Company had come to Huaresh.