Darus turned up the collar of his woolen coat and scowled at the day. It was cold, the sky the dirty gray of an unwashed blanket. Flurries of snow fell intermittently, whipped by a cutting wind. Here and there in the folds of the land the snow gathered in sullen drifts.
It’s going to be another long night, he said to himself, already dreading the long hours of lying on the iron-hard ground, waiting for the grim promise of daybreak. Insomnia was a bitch goddess in the best of times. Marching through a frozen landscape on the way to what was almost certain doom made it a hundred times worse.
His gaze fell on the Captain, a hundred paces ahead, marching at the head of the scraggly train of mercenaries, the once-proud men and women known as Bulger’s Badgers, now reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Are you sure there’s no other way? He wanted to tackle the man, force him to see reason. Marching to Idon to fight in the Demon Wars? Had the man lost his mind?
But he knew they had precious few choices left and all of them bad. What else did the Badgers have to fall back on after the disaster at Fell’s Keep? Who else would sign them on?
So he kept his thoughts to himself. He’d already given the Captain his opinion and the Captain had made the choice anyway.
Years ago he’d told the Captain he’d follow him to Barad’s Pit if that was where he led. Now it looked like that vow was being tested.
In front of him, Zoro, Gorev’s swayback yellow donkey, lifted his tail and deposited a steaming offering on the road. Darus stepped sourly over it, thinking that nothing could be more appropriate on this day.
As he so often did, Gorev was arguing with Zoro.
“No! I’m not going through this again with you. I said no, and no it is.”
Gorev was Inkali. Everyone knew the Inkali were crazy, but Gorev took crazy and raised it to a whole new level. In a mercenary company filled with lunatics, Gorev managed to stand out, no small feat.
He was also their only cook, since the other two, sisters by the name of An and Kan, deserted along with most of the Badgers once the Captain announced what their next job would be. Darus never liked An and Kan’s cooking—they could make a man think seriously about eating his belt rather than dinner—but compared to Gorev they were master chefs. Eating Gorev’s food took a brave spirit and a cast-iron stomach. Darus had seen soldiers offer to take night patrol rather than face the latest fare he’d cooked up.
“I know, I know, Zoro. You don’t have to keep reminding me. I’m no dummy. I know they’re all jealous of me. Can I help it? My natural abilities combined with my rare masculine beauty. How could they not be jealous? I try to hide it, but it does no good.”
Darus shook his head. Gorev was a bent, withered little man with a cadaverous face and teeth far too large for his weirdly small mouth. A peculiar odor hung about him constantly, an odor Darus thought of as sour cheese left to rot in an old shoe. Though everyone described it differently. Many late night arguments had turned to blows over the best way to describe it.
Suddenly Gorev gave a cry of delight. Dropping the donkey’s lead rope, he darted out into the countryside, heading for a haggard shrub growing out of a small rock pile. He waved his arms as he ran and yelled.
Clustered about the base of the shrub were a half dozen gorse ravens. They turned malevolent red eyes on the approaching figure, and for a long moment it looked like they wouldn’t give up without a fight.
But then, with angry squawks they trundled heavily into the air and flapped away.
Gorev picked up whatever it was they’d been clustered about and came skipping back to the road. His eyes fell on Darus and a huge grin split his ugly face. He held up his prize.
Darus put up his hand. “No. We’re not eating that.”
“What?” The little man’s face twisted in confusion. He stopped before Darus and held it out so Darus could see it, a ratlike thing with a curiously hairless face. The Dengali—as the lands around Idon were known—was known for its bizarre flora and fauna, a byproduct of proximity to the Gateway.
“It’s disgusting,” Darus said. “That’s why.”
“Come on, sarge. It’s only a little bloated.” Gorev gave it a little squeeze as he said this, causing the release of built up gas, foul enough that Darus felt bile rise in the back of his throat. “Put a little salt on it and you won’t even notice.”
“You’re going to make us all sick again if you try to serve that. Remember what happened after the battle at Tiber?”
“That wasn’t my fault! I thought I removed the skunk glands. It slipped my mind is all. Could have happened to anyone.”
Darus was unmoved. “Throw it out. Right now.”
Grumbling, Gorev tossed the dead thing. The gorse ravens squawked and descended happily on it almost as soon as it hit the ground.
“Another perfectly good meal ruined,” Gorev said to Zoro. “I’m surrounded by the small minded and unimaginative. It’s my curse.”
He picked up the lead rope and continued on. “I thought mercs were supposed to be tough, but all I ever hear is, ‘My tummy hurts’ and ‘I have diarrhea again.’” He made a dismissive sound. “Like a little diarrhea ever hurt anybody. Cleans a body out, that’s what it does.”
Darus moved up beside the Lieutenant. Aksia was a good officer, hard driving, ruthless, yet protective of the men and women who served under her. She’d been in the Badgers as long as Darus had. They were the first two, in fact. When the Captain formed the company—after he was driven from the Nomar army, exiled from the kingdom—he’d offered to make them both officers but only Aksia accepted.
“I’m not officer material,” Darus told Maksim that day. They were standing in the Captain’s tent. It was bare, everything that had marked the man’s status already stripped out.
“The hell you’re not. You’ve got a better head in battle than any man I ever met,” the Captain said.
“I’m a dock rat from the Bilges, born and bred. People like me don’t become officers. It’s not natural.”
“Dammit, Darus. This is a merc company I’m talking about, not some royal army overstuffed with prancing noble brats. Rank in my company will be earned, not handed down to fools whose only credit is what womb they sprang from.”
“I know that. Still don’t want it. Too much weight to carry around.”
The Captain ground his teeth. “You’re a hardheaded bastard. I should have left you in the Snaptisha’s dungeon.”
“But you knew you’d miss this ugly mug too much if you did.”
“Sergeant, at least? Will you take that?”
“Sarge, eh? I don’t mind the sound of that. Someone’s got to keep the knuckle draggers in line. Better if it’s one of their own.”
But that wasn’t all he’d extracted from the Captain that day. “One condition, General.”
“I’m not a general anymore, you know that.”
“Sorry, sir. Captain. That’s going to take some getting used to. You sure you won’t stick with General? You earned it.”
“General Maksim is dead and buried. Leave him there. It’s Captain now.”
“What about her?”
“She should be an officer.”
The Captain fixed him with one of his penetrating stares, the one that had even hard-bitten veterans shifting uneasily in their boots. Then he shook his head. “She’s reckless.”
“She’s proving herself. Make her an officer. You won’t regret it. Also, I’ll resign if you don’t.”
Maksim gestured at the empty tent. Outside were the sounds of the army rousing itself to move. Without them. “What’s there to resign from?”
“Do we have a deal?”
Maksim agreed, like Darus had known he would. He’d fetched Aksia and the three of them sat in the former general’s tent drinking stolen Jirim brandy while the Nomar army trudged away.
“It’s just us now. Here’s to it,” Maksim said, holding up his cup.
Except that it wasn’t. Over the following days men and women turned up, deserters from the Nomar army, come to swear allegiance to the man many of them thought of as a father. Thus was the Brigade born.
“I still don’t like it,” Lieutenant Aksia said, giving Darus a sideways look. “I still say we should have gone to Gareth. They always need help fighting the southern tribes.”
“We’ve been through this,” Darus said. “You know General Pevin is there, commanding the Gareth forces. You know how much he hates the Captain from the old days.” Long before, when Maksim was still a favored son in the Nomar army, rising fast, his future wide open, he and Pevin had been rivals for the same woman, a sloe-eyed beauty from the sandy kingdom of Trevayne. Maksim won. The beauty died six months later from a fever. And Pevin never forgot.
“Pevin would make things hot for us,” Darus added.
“Not with a knife in his ribs, he wouldn’t,” Aksia said, scowling.
That was Aksia. She liked to cut straight to the heart of things. Preferably with a sharp blade.
“What’s done is done. The Captain has decided to go to Idon. That’s where we’re going.”
The Lieutenant stared at the sharp, rocky mountain range shadowing them from the south. “We could still turn back. We haven’t signed anything yet.”
“You know the Captain doesn’t work that way.”
Aksia sagged a bit then. She scratched at a fleck of rust that marred her chain mail and bit her lip. “I got a bad feeling about this.”
“We’re going to Idon and that’s all you got? A bad feeling? I’m sure we’re all going to die horribly, screaming under demon claws. It’s a whole lot worse than a bad feeling.”
“I’m worried about the Captain. He’s drinking too much.”
“I’ve known him twenty years, Ax. When has he ever not drank too much?”
“I heard him yelling in his sleep last night.” Aksia always pitched her tent right beside the Captain’s.
Darus gave her a rough smile. “You sure that wasn’t me?” Gods, but he’d had some bad dreams lately.
“It didn’t sound like a little girl, so it wasn’t you,” she shot back, but the grim look in her eyes never lessened. “There’s a blackness around him.”
“There’s a blackness around all of us. When has it ever not been there?”
She gave him a dour look. “I ought to slug you right now.” It was no idle threat. She’d laid into him with her fists more than once over the years. It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t wear steel gauntlets all the time. Cracked his cheekbone once. It hurt sometimes when rain was threatening. Like now.
“We’ll get through this. Just like we always do. And after, we’ll have gold and our name back.”
It was what the Captain said every time the Lieutenant tried to talk him out of this course. The priests offered it to everybody. Come fight the Holy War, they said. Afterwards, you’ll be pure, all past sins forgotten and forgiven, along with your worldly crimes. A guaranteed path to eternal salvation in the green fields of Avadon. Gold in your pocket too.
“But most likely we’ll dead,” she said. “Or insane. Cursed. Mutilated.” Everything she said was true. Even the survivors came away marked. The Torashad War left no one unscarred.
“You know what I like about you? It’s your sunny disposition. The way you can light up the darkest night and make it seem like day.”
“There’s nothing I like about you. Always trying to put lipstick on the pig. I’m telling you, this time it can’t be done. Not when it’s a demon pig out to eat you.”
Darus left Aksia behind and moved up beside the Captain, who nodded in greeting. Maksim’s eyes were bloodshot and there was a tremor in his hand when he swept his hair back out of his face, but he still looked largely the same as he had twenty years ago when Darus first met him.
An angular, patrician face that looked carved by a master sculptor. The kind of face you saw on statues of long-dead heroes, strong jaw, commanding forehead. Piercing, watery blue eyes. There was more silver in Maksim’s hair than there had been twenty years ago, but it only served to make him look more distinguished.
The Captain was past sixty now, but you couldn’t tell by watching him. Age had not bent him at all. He was taller than most, broad of shoulder and deep of chest. He lacked the extra padding in the gut that most men his age acquired.
There was just something about the man that inspired loyalty. Sure, they’d lost half their people once he’d announced they were marching to Idon, but any normal commander would have lost everybody.
“She’s still unhappy,” Darus said.
“She wouldn’t be Aksia if she wasn’t.”
“You think we’ll get there tomorrow?”
“If we get a good start in the morning.”
“You sure about this, Cap?”
Maksim sighed. “You too? I thought sergeants were supposed to follow orders without question.”
“You must be thinking of some other sergeant.”
The Captain rubbed the back of his neck. “Hell no, I’m not sure. But I don’t see any other way out. Do you?”
And there was the crux of it. They really had no other choices. After Fell’s Keep they’d be lucky to get hired on as caravan guards.
“What if we went into farming? I hear there’s lots of good land being offered in Trentar, now that they cleaned the Lisenc savages out of the peninsula.”
The Captain chuckled, a deep, resonant sound. It was disgusting, really, how everything the man did was regal. Even blind drunk and throwing up he came off better than Darus did on his best day.
“Could you see us as farmers? You wouldn’t know which end of the plow to put in the ground.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the pointy end. Just like soldiering.”
“Two hitches,” the Captain said. “That’s all we have to survive. Then the past is wiped away, the future laid with gold.”
“Won’t do us any good if we’re all dead.”
The Captain nodded. “Not much does.”
Darus gave off then. They’d had this same conversation too many times already and it always led to the same place.
“I talked to Gorev. There’s no rations left after tonight’s meal.”
“We’ve marched on empty stomachs before.”
“None of the hunters I sent out have returned with game. One of them brought down a deer, but he said it was crawling with some kind of burrowing slug, so he left it there.” The closer they got to Idon, the worse the countryside got. It was like there was something leaking from the place, poisoning the air and the water. Plants and beasts were few and far between. The only thing there was a lot of were crows.
A half-smile crooked the Captain’s lips. “Thank the Bloody God for that. Gorev would have cooked it up for sure.”
“That’s the best thing about all this. We won’t have to eat his cooking anymore. That was bound to kill us sooner or later.”
“Any more desertions last night?”
“Only one. I expect that’s the last.” There’d been a steady trickle of desertions ever since they started this march. Normally, the Captain dealt harshly with deserters. They were only a merc company, but once you put your mark on the parchment, you were in the Company until you died or finished your term. But the Captain had made it clear when he told them where they were going that they were free to leave. He wouldn’t force anyone to Idon against their will.
“I’m concerned about Yazir. He’s not eating,” Maksim said.
Yazir was their sapper, part mage, part explosives specialist. He was best sapper in the business. He had an uncanny knack for knowing just where to dig and just how much bang to put in the hole to get the job done.
He was also utterly insane. In a company filled with lunatics, Yazir stood out. Even the other lunatics were afraid of him.
“That’s because he’s working on a new formula,” Darus said.
When Yazir was working on a new formula to improve the potency of his explosives, he tended to forget everything else. Like eating. Basic hygiene. Speech.
“He’s not much but skin and bones. We can’t have him dying on us.”
Darus groaned. He’d known this was where the Captain was heading. “Understood. I’ll make sure he eats his rations tonight. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll kill me this time.”
Several months ago, before the incident at Fell’s Keep, Darus had gone to Yazir’s tent to find out how many crackers they had left. He surprised the man and Yazir tossed a snapper at him. A snapper was a much smaller explosive than a cracker, but still powerful enough to take off a hand. Fortunately for Darus, it misfired and all it did was light his breeches on fire.
The Captain gave him a weary smile. “We’ve been over this. You’re not getting out of this company that easily, Sarge.”
The worst part was that he was right.
(This is an early, very rough draft of chapter one in a new series I’m writing with my son. I’m going for kind of a Black Company vibe, but with more humor. We’ll see what comes of it!)