Black Company (b)
‘Hold back, you nancies! Hold back I say! You can get those pretty boys later. Let’s see what else we’ve got here first.’
Morgan Trant pulled himself up in his saddle. He wasn’t a big man and the extra few inches and the straight back helped them to ignore the fact. They were a rabble of mercenaries, robbers, murderers and rapists all very handy with their swords and fists and dicks and there was not a single one of them he’d trust not to stick him one if he lost control. But they were his for now. They were having the time of their lives and they knew Morgan was the one who kept it all coming. Semmento and the other three gave them their chance, that was fair enough, but sorcerers were not captains or generals. Without Morgan to martial them the Black Company would fight like the rabble they were and, soon as you like, they’d all be dead.
‘Right lads. A bit of order! Hoggy! Get rid of the head, you’ll be needing that stick-knife soon. If I’ve got it right there’ll be more of them. Could be on either side. I want you to take your lot down the brook there. Mart and his’ll foot it house to house. They’ll come running Hoggy, so try not to miss any this time.’
Hoggy grinned a leery grin and gave him the finger.
‘And you, you tosser! Rest of you stay up just in case they’ve a surprise for us. Well, get on then!’
Morgan liked to watch. He was good with his sword, imaginative when it came to hurting people and free enough with his own dick when there was something sweet on offer and he had a bit of privacy. But he liked to watch. The taking of a village was a scene that never galled him. The brutality on the one side, the pain and despair on the other was a drama that filled his dreams. It was a drug to him, he wanted excess of it. And yet the watching, the need to witness the perversity of others, a perverse act in itself, gave him an excuse. It wasn’t Morgan Trant committing the atrocities the Company revelled in, he was merely the professional general tasked to deal with a group of men who were exceptionally vile. He had more than half-convinced himself he was a decent man in a difficult situation. This ability to deceive himself helped in the deception of others.
Duke Torgrim had liked him, saw him as hard but fair, loyal and keen to please, a ‘foreigner’ whose allegiance to the Kellinghalles was to be celebrated and rewarded. The problem Morgan Trant had was that the reward he’d been given for betraying his own people – the so-called ‘foreigners’, the Cymrais, who had held the land of the Terremark for thousands of years before the corsairs of the Kelling Isles had decided to settle there – had been a position he liked well enough, but there was little in the way of the wealth he so desired.
He had been made Torgrim’s gaoler. It was his job to drill the bad men and turn them into tough but expendable foot-soldiers, another weapon in the Kellinghalle’s never-ending war with the self-styled Men of Oak. The fact that most of his prisoners were Dyffili Dross, ‘foreigners’ themselves, distinguished from the Men of Oak only in that they had no higher purpose to their villainy than blood lust or the hope of monetary gain, was not seen as a problem: these men would butcher their mothers and rape their sisters if they were allowed. Indeed some of them already had by the time they came under Trant’s control.
Without doubt he was he eager to please but the loyalty was all a sham. It seemed to Morgan Trant he’d been given a golden opportunity to progress, though not in the way the Duke intended. Trant certainly trained them well enough, taught them to fight as a unit, taught them to obey commands, but from the outset the commands were his alone. This gang of cutthroats would be Morgan Trant’s personal army and the Duke would live to regret the day he had promoted a Cymrain.
The King in Garassa had a warrant out for Trant and his army. They had a warrant out for Gaspar Semmento too. The irony of the situation made Trant spit with frustration. Originally he had been Semmento’s employer. He had needed a major distraction. The Duke’s army was busy in the north of Terremark but the Dyffili Militia were still on hand and a good seventy of them were set to guard the Duke’s treasure-house. The demon Semmento had called, crashing about in the central market place, was just the distraction Trant needed. Half the militia took off to fight the thing, leaving the way clear for him and his lads to walk in, spill a lot of blood and take as much gold as they could carry. Five years later on with half the men hunted down and dead, most of the gold either taken back or spent, and with Trant still on the run, Semmento had found him again with a tasty proposition and a fresh heap of gold to get them started.
He built himself a new army. A few of the Dyffili Dross were still free and worth finding again but the major part of his new force came from the sinks of Garassa: a place that attracted the lowest of the low, condemned by their poverty, and the highest of the high, happy to abuse the former, and those who stood between committed to exploiting both.
It was a good company he had by now, well drilled and vastly more experienced in the fight than any force they might meet. Unless Duke Valdez got off his bony arse there’d be no one to stop them. And he couldn’t see that happening so long as they kept to the plan. These small villages and towns of the border country were virtually independent communities with little connection to the horse breeders of the Valdesian plain, even though the collectors of Garassa had parcelled them together. They were good, decent, hard working people who paid their taxes without a fuss but saw no need to offer allegiance to the Valdesian Duke. Allegiance is a two-way thing. They were proud of their prosperity and proud to be free but they had no army to defend them. For the Black Company they were easy meat.
Mart was having a feast. They’d flushed out a dozen already. Five or so had got past Mart’s men and one of those had managed to give Hoggy the slip, and there would be words about it later, but otherwise the killing was routine and functional. The brutality displayed was not so far as vicious or inventive as it would become when they had a little more time but everyone knew there was a job to do first. The lads were becoming quite professional. Either that or they still had bad heads from the night before.
There was a shout from Hoggy. All of a sudden three of his riders were down and a good fifteen village-men had legged it into the trees. This lot were obviously not as stupid as some they had come across. Armed only with half-bows, rabbiting knives and pig-sticks they had fought their way through sword, mace and spear and hurt the Company in the process. There would be punishment for that.
Just then the sorcerer Chaldonie and his so-called guard came trotting up past the smithy. Good, that was another ten for him to play with. He ordered the twelve he had with him off to join Hoggy’s troop making them seventeen on horse to chase fifteen on foot. Mart could carry on checking out the rest of the village while Morgan himself would stay with the new arrivals. Chaldonie expected a certain amount of attention and Morgan Trant was wise enough to make sure he got some.
Chaldonie refused to travel without a guard to keep him safe. He rode between two columns of five as befitted a man of his stature. Trant laughed at the thought. Chaldonie’s physical stature was the weediest, most pox-ridden in all Aegarde. And he was certainly insane. The problem was he had power, wizard’s power, and he was devilish quick with the demons too. Many were afraid of what he might do and even Trant was a little wary.
‘How are we in this… place, Trant?’
‘This place is Huaresh. We are very well. Well, I am! How are you? Bum still sore?’
Chaldonie spoke no words in response to the captain’s irreverent jibe but his eyes flared. They were pink in the pupil and very bloodshot eyes, and utterly alarming to anyone not used to them. They did not alarm Trant but after a moment’s thought he decided to play the game.
‘It seems the villagers have all gone apart from some stout lads who are trying their best to slow us down. I can’t imagine we’ll have too much trouble catching up with the rest of the village. Then the boys can have their fun.’
Chaldonie grimaced in disgust. ‘They are so bestial,’ he said.
With a shrug Trant tried to give the impression he was equally disdainful and completely detached from the worst excesses of his men, but Chaldonie was too caught up in his own concerns to notice.
‘There’s nothing for me here then?’
‘No, I think—’
Just at that moment a volley of arrows sang between them, and although they missed both Chaldonie and Trant one of the guards was pierced through the neck. A party of the villagers had turned back, emboldened perhaps by their escape, and were trying a little more shoot-and-run. It was a mistake everyone might regret. Chaldonie was not to be attacked.
As the horse bucked beneath him the sorcerer screamed out words of a hideous tongue and the spell he made was like a knife through canvas. The air before them shook as though exploding and then ripped apart, the colours of the world severed by a vast and menacing blackness. The edges of this wound in space throbbed as a hollow roaring surged through the gap, and then, blundering out of darkness into the light of day, came the most extraordinary demon Trant had yet seen. This one appeared to have no head or eyes. Instead it had five limbs, each of equal length, joined together with little in the way of a torso between. It reminded him of a starfish except that the limbs did not taper but were more like the legs of a giant elephant, and that the legs seemed to be made of jelly, and that this creature was something like twenty-five feet high or wide from toe to toe. As it cart-wheeled down the high street, in a spray of who knew what, the awful lesion hanging in the air shivered shut, leaving the world whole once more. Trant heaved a sigh of relief. The opened door always unnerved him. One demon displaced was bad enough!
‘Couldn’t you get a better one?’ he snapped at Chaldonie. ‘In fact why did you bother?’
Chaldonie glared at him once more. ‘I was under attack.’
Meanwhile the monster, seemingly oblivious to its location, continued to whirl about leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The limbs battered and smashed through wood and brick and stone. Mart’s men ran for their lives.
‘What use is this?’ Trant demanded.
‘I think you will find the demons scare people,’ said Chaldonie.
‘Damn right they do; they scare me too. We were doing just fine without this one.’
‘And yet I was nearly killed!’
Morgan screamed in fury and frustration. ‘Mart! Get your men back on their horses and get after those bowmen! And you, Chaldonie, I want you to sort out that demon before there’s nothing left for us to take. Look at it!’
They looked. The creature had reached the end of the village and there was no saying where it would go next but as they watched something very odd happened. As it crossed the field boundary it completely disappeared, as though it had ploughed into a river and sunk beneath the surface. A disappearance in itself was nothing unusual and Trant presumed Chaldonie had merely found a new way to send it back to wherever it had come from. But no, somehow there was an almighty crash and lots of screaming and there it was again, inexplicably battering through a large white building Trant would have sworn wasn’t there half a minute before. In panic people emerged from the wreckage: women and children, women with babes in arms, and old men trying their best to save them.
‘The buggers!’ Trant cried. ‘That’s a new one. Chaldonie, get rid, we don’t need it anymore. You’ve found us what we came for. And here come the boys, right on cue.’
Chaldonie, smirking in triumph, glanced back along the road. The clattering of hooves under the arches of the inn confirmed that the main body of the Black Company was here at last. The demon, splashing about in the brook by now, affecting neither villain nor victim, had done its unwitting work and so Chaldonie, with a casual gesture, sent it back into the darkness.
Morgan Trant meanwhile looked on with satisfaction as the boys with many a whoop and a cheer began to run down and take whatever size or shape of quarry took their fancy. All tastes would be catered for. With Morgan, the trick was in choosing which assault would be the most exciting to watch.
Bassalo could not close his eyes.
His body was transfixed twenty feet above it all on a splintered shaft of wood but his sight was transfixed by the horror unfolding below. He was not in pain as a remnant of his trance stayed with him blocking out most every feeling, dulling any expression of emotion. The trance would fade over the next hour or so, the feeling would return and the agonies would begin – if he had not bled to death by then. Death would be something to hope for. He knew this was true. He knew this because his eyes were obliged to see everything. He saw Andras punished by amputation for having dared to attack the attackers, his torso strapped to a post in the middle of it all so that he could watch the rape of the village. The Signoren saw all his little girls and boys abused, children he had taught to read and write and draw, to value nature and understand the seasons, to run and to play as though the world were a normal place. He saw their mothers tortured. Through the years he had taught them all, helped them to be happy, given them the confidence to face the world and enjoy their lives. The world was now a different place: a land of torment and cruelty and terror. In the field, in the gardens and commons, and on the the village highroad that had brought to them this day only villainy and disaster, the savagery continued without remorse. What was once ordinary had become hell.
His eyelids refused to function. Try as he might to gain some respite from this appalling scene the muscles failed him, they would not shut. His eyes were doomed to shift from one thrashing nightmare to the next until the rest of his body failed completely. Finally, hopelessly, he let his gaze rest upon the chaos just beneath him: the ruined schoolhouse, a desecration much less painful to witness even though it represented the destruction of his entire life’s work. Gone were the desks, the settles, the chalkboard, all were in shards and splinters. Gone was the creaking stage that had supported a thousand nascent performances for mums and dads, aunts and uncles through all the generations. The platform had collapsed in on itself and…
And what was that?
Another crime to torture him?
On her side, lying still, a young woman and, nestled close at her breast, bloodied yet, the cord cut and tied but still trailing, a naked new born babe. Amelia Verdasso it must be. She had been overdue, the women had been fussing about her as the Signoren had left them to climb his tower.
His eyes watered. Unable to blink away the tears he found it difficult to focus. One arm, the lower arm, had curled around the infant but the other was twisted and broken behind her back; her neck was bent at an impossible angle. She must be dead. Surely she was and yet, barely registered through the blur of his tears, had he not just seen the briefest movement?
Sudden uncontrollable hope surged through him, battering aside the paralysis of the trance. No matter his position, skewered at the top of this shattered tower, no matter the whooping violence all around, no matter the utter despair that sought to drag him to his grave, amid the ruins something moved. Down there, shielded by the devastation of all he had once been, a heart was beating. The understanding of what that could mean flooded his thoughts. If there was life then there was a chance that not everything on this desperate, evil day was lost. Deep inside him this wild knowledge of hope brought with it sudden, unlooked for strength.
Without a blink he wished away the tears; without a blink he made sure of what it was he had seen; without a blink his eyes witnessed a miracle.
Amelia’s lower arm had fallen away, pushed away by the infant’s thrusting limbs. The child had lost her nipple. He was determined to have it back. Instinctually, arms and legs and body working together, he inched across her chest and would not be denied. Down there, hidden from the view of all but the gods of the sky and one ruined man, a newly-dead mother gave suck, and her newly-born child clung fiercely to the life she was giving him, and he would not let it go. How he struggled!
Bassalo could not close his eyes but, for all the torment they had endured, he knew that now for a blessing.
Start of book: The Preface
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
Available as a Paperback Original
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COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
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