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«Shadows Linger», Glen Cook

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For David G. Hartwell, without whom there would be neither Sword nor Dread Empire nor Starfishers

Chapter One

Juniper

All men are born condemned, so the wise say. All suckle the breast of Death.

All bow before that Silent Monarch. That Lord in Shadow lifts a finger. A feather flutters to the earth. There is no reason in His song. The good go young. The wicked prosper. He is king of the Chaos Lords, His breath stills all souls.

We found a city dedicated to His worship, long ago, but so old now it has lost that dedication. The dark majesty of his godhead has frayed, been forgotten by all but those who stand in his shadow. But Juniper faced a more immediate fear, a specter from yesteryear leaking into the present upon a height overlooking the city. And because of that the Black Company went there, to that strange city far beyond the bounds of the Lady’s empire... But this is not the beginning. In the beginning we were far away. Only two old friends and a handful of men we would meet later stood nose-to-nose with the shadow.

Chapter Two

Tally roadside

The children’s heads popped from the weeds like groundhog heads. They watched the approaching soldiers. The boy whispered, “Must be a thousand of them.” The column stretched back and back. The dust it raised drifted up the face of a far hill. The creak and jangle of harness grew ever louder.

The day was hot. The children were sweating. Their thoughts lingered on a nearby brook and a dip in a pool they had found there. But they had been set to watch the road. Rumor said the Lady meant to break the renascent Rebel movement in Tally province.

And here her soldiers came. Closer now. Grim, hard-looking men. Veterans. Easily old enough to have helped create the disaster which had befallen the Rebel six years ago, claiming, among a quarter million men, their father.

“It’s them!” the boy gasped. Fear and awe filled his voice. Grudging admiration edged it. “That’s the Black Company.”

The girl was no student of the enemy. “How do you know?”

The boy indicated a bear of a man on a big roan. He had silvery hair. His bearing said he was accustomed to command. “That’s the one they call the Captain. The little black one beside him would be the wizard called One-Eye. See his hat?

That’s how you tell. The ones behind them must be Elmo and the Lieutenant.”

“Are any of the Taken with them?” The girl rose higher, for a better look. “Where are the other famous ones?” She was the younger. The boy, at ten, already considered himself a soldier of the White Rose. He yanked his sister down. “Stupid! Want them to see you?” “So what if they do?” The boy sneered. She had believed their uncle Neat when he had said that the enemy would not harm children. The boy hated his uncle. The man had no guts.

Nobody pledged to the White Rose had any guts. They just played at fighting the Lady. The most daring thing they did was ambush the occasional courier. At least the enemy had courage. They had seen what they had been sent to see. He touched the girl’s wrist. “Let’s go.” They scurried through the weeds, toward the wooded creek bank.

A shadow lay upon their path. They looked up and went pale. Three horsemen stared down at them. The boy gaped. Nobody could have slipped up unheard. “Goblin!” The small, frog-faced man in the middle grinned. “At your service, laddy-boy.”

The boy was terrified, but his mind remained functional. He shouted, “Run!” If one of them could escape...

Goblin made a circular gesture. Pale pink fire tangled his fingers. He made a throwing motion. The boy fell, fighting invisible bonds like a fly caught in a spider’s web. His sister whimpered a dozen feet away.

“Pick them up,” Goblin told his companions. “They should tell an interesting tale.”

Chapter Three

Juniper

The Iron Lily

The Lily stands on Floral Lane in the heart of the Buskin, Juniper’s worst slum, where the taste of death floats on every tongue and men value life less than they do an hour of warmth or a decent meal. Its front sags against its neighbor to the right, clinging for support like one of its own drunken patrons. Its rear cants in the opposite direction. Its bare wood siding sports leprous patches of grey rot. Its windows are boarded with scraps and chinked with rags. Its roof boasts gaps through which the wind howls and bites when it blows off the Wolander Mountains. There, even on a summer’s day, the glaciers twinkle like distant veins of silver.

Sea winds are little better. They bring a chill damp which gnaws the bones and sends ice floes scampering across the harbor.

The shaggy arms of the Wolanders reach seaward, flanking the River Port, forming cupped hands which hold the city and harbor. The city straddles the river, creeping up the heights on both sides.

Wealth rises in Juniper, scrambling up and away from the river. The people of the Buskin, when they lift their eyes from their misery, see the homes of the wealthy above, noses in the air, watching one another across the valley.

Higher still, crowning the ridges, are two castles. On the southern height stands Duretile, hereditary bastion of the Dukes of Juniper. Duretile is in scandalous disrepair. Most every structure in Juniper is.