Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Black Company re-read

(Originally posted on Sunday, 28 October 2012)

Recently I’ve re-read The Black Company novel – the very first book by Glen Cook that I have ever read. It made me remember why I fell in love with his style of writing.

The Black Company novel is an all-time classic. The action starts from the very first page and it is fast paced throughout the book. There is so much happening that any other author would make a trilogy out of this one novel. It’s gritty, it’s mysterious, it’s larger than life, it’s sarcastic,
it's truthful and it gets better and better with every chapter. The ending is great and quite uplifting. Yeah, uplifting. Many later Glen Cook novels are somewhat depressing, but not The Black Company novel. The second part of this book, especially the ending, shows that the main characters are good guys after all.

Below are my favorite, spoiler-free quotes. Enjoy!

     The Captain was cool. He didn’t crack an eyelid or smile. “You’re presumptuous, Croaker. When are you going to learn to go through channels?” Channels meant bug the Lieutenant first. Don’t interrupt his nap unless Blues were storming the Bastion.

     “The fool is going to pile onto the rocks.”
     I woke up. The coaster was perilously near said danger. She shifted course a point and eluded disaster by a hundred yards, resumed her original course.
     “That put some excitement into our day,” I observed.
     ”One of these first days you’re going to say something without getting sarcastic and I’ll curl up and die, Croaker.”
     “Keeps me sane, friend.”
     “It’s debatable, Croaker. Debatable.”

     When I reflect on my companions' inner natures I usually wish
I controlled one small talent. I wish I could look inside them and unmask the darks and brights that move them. Then I take a quick look into the jungle of my own soul and thank heaven that I cannot. Any man who barely sustains an armistice with himself has no business poking around in an alien soul.

     We lead a simple life. No thinking required. The Captain takes care of that. We just follow orders. For most of us the Black Company is a hiding place; a refuge from yesterday, a place to become a new man.

     You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realize that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behavior tempered only by the presence of a few decent men.
I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old lessons die hardest.

     Naturally, Raven has become the Captain's best friend. They sit around together like a couple of rocks, talking about the same things boulders do. They are content just to share one another's company.

     Soulcatcher marched beside me, matching stride for stride, occasionally glancing my way. I could not see his face, but I sensed his amusement.
     The relief came, and was followed by a wave of awe at my own temerity. I had talked back like Catcher was one of the guys. It was thunderbolt time.
     "So why don't we look at those documents?" he asked. He seemed positively cheerful. I showed him to the wagon. We scrambled aboard. The driver gave us one wide-eyed look, then stared determinedly forward, shivering and trying to become deaf.

     Soulcatcher was there. We had not seen him since that day at the edge of the forest. I had hoped he had gotten too busy to get back to us. I looked at the Captain, trying to divine the future from his face. I saw that he was not happy.
     If the Captain was not happy, I wasn't.

     Once each month, in the evening, the entire Company assembles so the Annalist can read from his predecessors. The readings are supposed to put the men in touch with the outfit's history and traditions, which stretch back centuries and thousands of miles.
     I placed my selection on a crude lectern and went with the usual formula. "Good evening, brothers. A reading from the Annals of the Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar. Tonight I'm reading from the Book of Kette, set down early in the Company's second century by Annalists Lees, Agrip, Holm, and Straw. The Company was in service to the Paingod of Cho'n Delor at that time. That was when the Company really was black.
     "The reading is from Annalist Straw. It concerns the Company's role in events surrounding the fall of Cho'n Delor." I began to read, reflecting privately that the Company has served many losing causes.
     The Cho'n Delor era bore many resemblances to our own, though then, standing more than six thousand strong, the Company was in a better position to shape its own destiny.
     I lost track entirely. Old Straw was hell with a pen. I read for three hours, raving like a mad prophet, and held them spellbound. They gave me an ovation when I finished. I retreated from the lectern feeling as though my life had been fulfilled.

     Silent smiled, shrugged, stalked over to the stone pile and seated himself. He was done with the question game. Of all the Company he is the least concerned about the image he will present in the Annals. He does not care-whether people like or hate him, does not care where he has been or where he is going. Sometimes I wonder if he cares whether he lives or dies, wonder what makes him stay. He must have some attachment to the Company.

     Stormbringer had gotten carried away. We were suffering almost as much as was the Rebel. Visibility was a scant dozen yards. I could barely see the men to my right and left, and only two guys in the rearguard line, walking backward before me. Knowing our enemies had to come after us facing into the wind did not cheer me much.

     The Captain looked like a naturally surly bear wakened from hibernation prematurely. The grey at his temples wriggled as he chewed his words before spitting them out. His face sagged. His eyes were dark hollows. His voice was infinitely tired.

     "That's not your department, though, is it? Catcher doesn't second-guess your surgical procedures, does he? Then why question the grand strategy?"
     I grinned. "The unwritten law of all armies, Captain. The lower ranks have the privilege of questioning the sanity and competence of their commanders. It's the mortar holding an army together."
     The Captain eyed me from his shorter stature, wider displacement, and from beneath shaggy brows. "That holds them together, eh? And you know what keeps them moving?"
     "What's that?"
     "Guys like me ass-kicking guys like you when they start philosophizing. If you get my drift."

     I roamed around seeking old friends. The Company had scattered throughout the larger mob, as cadre for the Captain's will. Some men I hadn't seen since Lords. I did not know if they were still alive.
     I could find no one but Goblin, One-Eye, and Silent. Today Goblin and One-Eye were no more communicative than Silent. Which said a lot about morale.
     They trudged doggedly onward, eyes on the dry earth, only rarely making some gesture or muttering some word to maintain the integrity of our bubble of peace. I trudged with them. Finally,
I tried breaking the ice with a "Hi."
     Goblin grunted. One-Eye gave me a few seconds of evil stare. Silent did not acknowledge my existence.
     "Captain says we're going to march through the night," I told them. I had to make someone else as miserable as I was.
Goblin's look asked me why I wanted to tell that kind of lie. One-Eye muttered something about turning the bastard into a toad.
     "The bastard you're going to have to turn is Soulcatcher," I said smugly.
     He gave me another evil look. "Maybe I'll practice on you, Croaker."
     One-Eye did not like the night march, so Goblin immediately approved the genius of the man who had initiated the idea. But his enthusiasm was so slight One-Eye did not bother taking the bait.

     Darkness came early under the storm. We went about business as usual. We got a little away from the Rebel, waited for the storm to abate, pitched a camp with fires built of whatever brush could be scrounged. Only this time it was just a brief rest, till the stars came out. They stared down with mockery in their twinkles, saying all our sweat and blood really had no meaning in the long eye of time. Nothing we did would be recalled a thousand years from now.

     I groaned and moaned and cursed and got up. Every muscle was stiff. Every bone ached. "Next time we're someplace civilized enough to have taverns remind me to drink a toast to eternal peace," I grumbled. "One-Eye, I'm ready to retire."
     "So who isn't? But you're the Annalist, Croaker. You're always rubbing our noses in tradition. You know you only got two ways out while we've got this commission. Dead or feet first. Shove some chow in your ugly face and let's get cracking. I got more important things to do than play nursemaid."
     "Cheerful this morning, aren't we?"
     "Positively rosy."

     Those poor Rebel fools, I thought. (...)
     I had been dissatisfied because I had seen little spectacular from the Taken? Not anymore. I had trouble keeping my supper down as I reflected on the cold, cruel calculation that had gone into the planning of this.
     I suffered one of those crises of conscience familiar to every mercenary, and which few outside the profession understand. My job is to defeat my employer's enemies. Usually any way I can. And heaven knows the Company has served some blackhearted villains. But there was something wrong about what was happening below. In retrospect, I think we all felt it. Perhaps it sprang from a misguided sense of solidarity with fellow soldiers dying without an opportunity to defend themselves.
     We do have a sense of honor in the Company.

     No matter how long you soldier, fear always swells as combat nears. There is always the dread that the numbers will catch up- One-Eye enters every action sure the fates have checked his name off their list.

     "We could have taken them," someone said.
     "Stupid!" the Lieutenant snapped. "Right now they aren't sure who they saw. If we fought, they would know."
     We did not need the Rebel getting a line on us this close to home. There was no room for maneuvering.
     The man who had spoken was one of the stragglers we had accumulated during the long retreat,. "Brother, you better learn one thing if you want to stick with us. You fight when there ain't no other choice. Some of us would have gotten hurt too, you know."

     We sprawled on the flank of a grassy hill. The Tower rose above the horizon due south. That basaltic cube was intimidating even from ten miles away-and implausible in its setting. Emotion demanded a surround of fiery waste, or at best a land perpetually locked in winter. Instead, this country was a vast green pasture, gentle hills with small farms dotting their southern hips. Trees lined the deep, slow brooks snaking between.
     Nearer the Tower the land became less pastoral, but never reflected the gloom Rebel propagandists placed around the Lady's stronghold. No brimstone and barren, broken plains. No bizarre, evil creatures strutting over scattered human bones. No dark clouds ever rolling and grumbling in the sky.

     I nodded again, too shaky to speak, totally baffled. This was the Lady, the villain of the ages, the Shadow animate. This was the black widow at the heart of darkness' web, a demi-goddess of evil. What could be important enough for her to take note of the likes of me?

     "Captain wants you," he said, He seemed cool.
     "Figures." I signed good-bye, strolled toward headquarters.
I felt no urgency. No mere mortal could intimidate me now.

     One of his staff volunteered, "He was a company commander this morning. It was hard on officers today." When you have heavy casualties among your officers they are leading from the front to keep the men from breaking.

     She rode through the Company, straight to the Captain, spoke to him for half a minute. He showed no emotion, corning face to face with this old evil. Nothing shakes him when he assumes his iron commander mask.

     I snuck a glance at her. She wore a teasing little smile. I shifted my attention to the fighting. What she did to me, just sitting there, amidst the fury of the end of the world, was more frightening than the prospect of a death in battle. I am too old to boil like a horny fifteen year old.

     "I know you, Annalist. I have opened your soul and peered inside. You fight for me because your company has undertaken a commission it will pursue to the bitter end- because its principal personalities feel its honor was stained in Beryl. And that though most of you think you're serving Evil.

     They sent Goblin to waken me. I was my usual charming morning self, threatening blood feud with anyone fool enough to disturb my dreams. (…)

     (…) I did not believe in evil as an active force, only as a matter of viewpoint, yet I had seen enough to make me question my philosophy. If the Lady were not evil incarnate, then she was
as close as made no difference.

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