It was my tenth year of command when the Company found itself in the employ of the King of Aquilonia, fighting the Nemedian War.
Lord-General Prospero had stationed the Company in a fort overlooking a small pass through the mountains near the head of the Khorotas River while he and the rest of the Aquilonian lords and their armies camped near Shamar. Intelligence reported that General Zin had bid his engineers construct hundreds of barges – so common thought was that he was going to bypass the mountains altogether and move his armies into Aquilonia via the Red River. Even if he decided to take the Road of Kings, a small force was stationed at the high point of the road in the mountains, right on the border – able to provide Prospero’s host ample warning to march North and meet Zin in the foothills. It was a good plan – the Nemedian border from Cimmeria to Ophir was secured. I think it speaks to Prospero’s attention to detail that he chose to man our fort at all.
Though as it turns out, he grossly underestimated how many slaves Zin was willing to kill disassembling barges and hauling the things through the mountains.
When the first scouting parties started arriving, we thought it was a joke – that perhaps Zin was attempting to sneak small raiding parties in behind the lines to disrupt the primary line of defense. We dispatched them with little more than raised eyebrows and chuckles. Then our scouting parties stopped returning. Since I didn’t have the manpower for a true patrol in force we brought all our stores into the fort and prepared ourselves for a beating. Two days later, Zin’s vanguard – roughly ten thousand men, double the Company’s size – crested the pass, the rest of his army not more than a day behind.
His plan was expensive and inelegant but it had the advantage of being insane. March a few companies of mercenaries and enough of the Nemedian banners to look like he means it up the Road of Kings, send a few barge loads of slaves down the Red River, and kill anyone who puts a pair of eyes on him marching fifty thousand men and even more slaves, baggage trains, disassembled siege engines and barges through a small, little used mountain pass and down the Khorotas to invest Tarantia directly.
The Company, as is our usual lot, was in his way.
Our artillery ranged the breadth of the pass, and once he saw the Rose and Swords flying above the ramparts he knew who we were and that we kept a few pet wizards around. He had enough troops he could certainly march them past us with acceptable losses, but we’d decimate their baggage trains and those precious barges. We were, again as seems to be our usual lot, a very tiny thorn in just the right place to bring an entire plan to a screeching halt.
It didn’t pay to be in General Zin’s advance force that bitter spring morning. We had been at the fort for months, and we had been bored. The entire pass was rigged with all manner of deviltry, both mundane and arcane. Thousands died in the first hours. I’ve got to hand it to Earl Tiermus, he had obviously been ordered to establish an Aquilonian beachhead even if he had to pave it with Nemedian dead, and he did just that. At the end of what I hope was the worst day of his life, he was left with less than four thousand men and our only loss was a Corporal I’d ordered hung that morning for getting drunk and cutting up a whore. Tree and Dawg made his first night in Aquilonia even worse, stealing out of the fort with a few of our scouts to unleash all manner of evil boogums on his disheartened men.
We all knew that it was a shallow victory, and short lived. But we patted ourselves on the back for our collective ingenuity nonetheless. We could’ve marched out of there that night. The Lieutenant and I discussed it at some length. Tiermus’ forces weren’t in any shape to stop us, and we could’ve wiped them out if it had come to a fight. I could’ve marched my brothers out of there. At the time though, a huge percentage of the Company was composed of Aquilonians and they retained some of their old loyalties, lives, and patriotism. They knew Zin was at our doorstep. And they would stand fast no matter what I had to say on the subject.
I woke the next morning to the sound of Nemedian war drums.
Zin made his only mistake that first day. In the hope that he could be rid of us easily and move on (and probably a little bit pissed to find Earl Tiermus stone-dead under a pile of black roses in his tent), the General had his men storm the walls with very little preparation – just ladders and grapnels. His men stepped foot on our wall in a few cases, but most of the ones to attempt it were knocked down or feathered by our archers. But that was the end of the mistakes.
The next seven days and nights went about how one would expect. Zin’s army camped up the pass out of range of our artillery, waited until their siege engines caught up, and proceeded to pound us systematically and unrelentingly into the ground. The men were amazing. They fought like lions against an unending stream of fresh troops. Dodger and Squeaky died under the same rock in the days before we erected shelter against the trebuchets. Tinea and mighty Al’Rhashaad on the walls the morning they rolled that damned tower up. Gotian, our priest and surgeon and one of my closest friends in this world, burned by their fiery shot. Dawg, one of our two precious wizards and a Company fixture since long before even I signed on was murdered while he slept the night Zin sent his assassins over the wall after the command staff.
The night after the seventh day of siege found us with a little more than five hundred men left alive; the Lieutenant and myself, Sarge, two other NCOs, Tree, one catapult held together literally with the bones of our dead, and one old whore – Matty – who refused to leave when we snuck the rest of the Company hangers-on out that first night. We all knew we were going to die at first light. Every one of us was injured in some way – except for Sarge who’s immortal – and we couldn’t properly man the entire wall come daybreak. Zin was going to have us and there was little we could do about it but make him keep paying. By my estimates we’d taken four men for every one of my brothers and delayed his grand designs precious days. I could die with that.
The night was cool, and calm. Matty had spent the day in our little stone bunker cooking up a grand meal with the remainder of our stores and we’d all eaten well, bless the woman. I’d spent some time before full dark walking amongst the massed piles of my dead brothers. Almost five thousand bodies piled as respectfully as you can pile corpses, placed strategically to provide shelter to our tents from Zin’s artillery. The civilized man within me was disgusted at our treatment of the dead, until Sarge joined me in my macabre patrol and said simply, “Even in death, our brothers shelter us.” He gave me a long look before leaning down to shine the Rose and Swords on the lapel of a dead man sticking out of the pile at an awkward angle. After he was satisfied that the fallen Private’s insignia was in order, he straightened and went about his way into the twilight gloom.
The scout arrived a few hours after dark. The boys standing post nearly killed the poor man when he came over the wall, thankfully someone recognized him from Prospero’s staff. The Lieutenant and I were cooling our heels in the command tent, he attempting to suture a handbreadth of his thigh back where it belonged with no small amount of cursing and sputtering, and I trying to get the book of names up to date so Zin would know who it was who made him lose his war.
“Prospero’s man boss, come over the wall,” Sarge muttered from the raised tent flap before letting the man enter. He was a small man, very slight in build, dressed in the brown and slate of the mountains. He came to a halt in the center of the tent and bowed slightly.
“Lord-General Prospero’s compliments, Captain,” he said in a soft voice, “I do not know if you remember me, but we met a year ago at Lord Prospero’s estates in Poitain, my name is Bruto.”
“I remember you,” I said reaching out from my chair to clasp the man’s hand, “I don’t suppose you have a division of heavy horse in your satchel do you?”
He shook his head, smiling sadly, “Not on me, no sir. Duke Themidus and his bannermen ride with all haste, but I fear they are three days behind me.”
“Themidus,” the Lieutenant growled, “wouldn’t lift a lace-cuffed hand to help a band of sellswords.”
“Just so,” the man agreed, “but the Society has a special place in Lord Prospero’s heart and he bids the man ride, with all haste.” Bruto took a knee in front of my chair before continuing. “Captain, my Lord has bid me pass on your final orders, in his name. You are to continue to harangue and disrupt General Zin until the sun is full on the morrow, at which point there will be no chance of the Nemedians reaching Tarantia before our armies arrive. When the sun is full in the sky, you are formally relieved of any obligation to the crown of Aquilonia. My lord would ask…indeed beg…that you take any and all actions necessary to spare the lives of your valiant men. I have been instructed to aid you in any way which I am able.”
The Lieutenant and I looked to each other for a moment, both of us understanding what must be done. He nodded slightly.
“Alright,” I said, heaving myself to my feet and kicking open the chest I was using as a chair. The Society’s kitty – gold and silver from a dozen countries and a hundred generations glinted in the dim lamp-light. After digging around with a tinny clatter for a while I found the two items I was looking for and turned back to Bruto. “This,” I said handing him the first pouch of soft leather, “is our promise.” He hefted it to ensure it wouldn’t jingle and reveal his position in the night before tucking it away in his jerkin. “This,” I said, handing him the small but very thick book I had been writing in before his arrival, “is our legacy.” Bruto nodded and placed the book in his satchel. “And this,” I continued, trying to make my voice as severe as possible and handing him the tiny silken pouch, “is our past.” Bruto shivered slightly when he took it, the items inside making an almost imperceptible jingle.
“Above your pay-grade, son,” replied the Lieutenant. “Try not to even think about the thing.”
“Alright,” I said, ”˜I need you to take those three items with all haste to Tarantia, there’s a small tavern against the south wall near the wharf. The owner’s an ancient blind bastard named Myca. I need you to take these to him.”
“In…all…haste. There’s some stuff in there you don’t want in your possession long. You understand me?”
“I do, sir, my solemn word. They will be delivered, in all haste.”
“Okay then. I am so ordered, your message is delivered. You’re welcome to a meal if you need, but I’d feel better the further away from here you were by morning.”
“I will be off, sir.” Bruto gathered himself and paused at the exit. “Songs will be sung, Captain. All of Aquilonia will know what you’ve done here.”
“Tell you what,” I said, waving away the formalities, “after Zin’s realized he can’t make it to Tarantia and leaves, you get some troops up here. You bury my men proper and we’ll be square.”
“It will be done, sir. Mitra’s blessings on you.” And he was gone.
The Lieutenant settled back in his chair. “I’m surprised you parted with the family jewels,” he said.
“They’ll be in a far better place than we soon enough.” I took a drink of the brandy I’d been nursing all night. “How much of this stuff is left?”
“About three casks I think.”
I nodded. “SERGEANT MAJOR!”
A moment later, Sarge ducked his head into the tent. “Yessir?”
“Assemble the Company, Sergeant. And find me a handcart.”
“I’m quite sure you deserve to ride a carriage to hell sir, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Sarge returned with a battered little handcart and ducked out again. The Lieutenant and I loaded the last three casks of Prospero’s incredibly sublime brandy and the Company kitty onto the cart and wheeled it out into the night. The remaining men, those who weren’t standing a post, were assembled in formation in the bloodstained and battered commons just inside the fort’s outer wall. Every one of them stood straight as an arrow, even those who shouldn’t be standing because of their wounds were held up by the men next to them. A tenth of the men I had seven days prior. We had been through the crucible and those that came out the other end did so changed in some imperceptible way. There was something in the eyes. I scratched at the scar on my ring finger while I gathered myself.
Sarge took two lock-steps forward.
“Captain!” he shouted strong and clear, “I present to you, The Black Rose Society. Assembled as ordered.” The Company snapped their heels to attention.
“Thank you Sergeant Major,” I replied, pulling myself back into form. “You men stand easy.” They relaxed, but just slightly.
“We’ve just received word that Lord-General Prospero’s army will reach Tarantia before General Zin could possibly get there. You – and our fallen brothers behind me – have single-handedly stopped a war before it started. On this ground, The Black Rose Society foiled the amassed banners of Nemedia!” The Company responded with a shouted “HOOWAH” that echoed into the night. I hope Zin heard it.
“Now it’s time to figure out how to get us the hell out of this with our necks intact. Come dawn I intend to fire the last of our shot with the last of our catapults, and when the sun is full in the sky, I intend to open the gates and surrender.” There was a grumble from some of the men at this, but the rest were just as pleased I wasn’t ordering them to die to the man. “Zin is legendary for making his fortune selling slaves,” I continued, “he may hate us, but he knows that good fighting men are worth a small fortune on the block, and you…brothers…are very good fighting men, and Roses to boot. Think of the novelty. In any event, each one of us is worth more than a hundred orphans or whores.”
“FUCK YOU!” cackled Matty from somewhere in the back. Everyone had a bit of a chuckle.
“The good news,” I continued after the laughter had subsided, “is that most of you won’t be here in the morning to worry about it. This is it, gents, the cash-out. We will be divvying the Company kitty tonight amongst you all according to share, plus mine and the Lieutenant’s shares to help bribe you out of these mountains and get you to wherever you choose to go. Those of you who have scouted these mountains know exactly how to get clear of Zin’s pickets, and tonight you’ll be taking small platoons of your bothers to safety with you.
“I will keep the Company’s promise!” I shouted. “If I should fall, who will keep our promise?”
“I will keep our promise,” the Lieutenant said the ritual response quietly.
“And if this man should fall,” I continued pointing to the Lieutenant, “who will keep our promise?”
“I will keep our promise!” bellowed Sarge.
“Very well,” I said, “the promise will be kept. No matter what happens in the coming days, weeks, or months, the promise will be kept. The Rose and Swords will fly! Each of you will always be a brother of the Society, and you will be welcomed under our banner.”
“I need two platoon-“ the entire Company took two steps forward, I had to pause to choke down the knot of pride in my throat. I continued just a little softer, “…two platoons of men who will stay along with the Lieutenant, Tree, and myself to put on a show in the morning. I will do everything in our power to secure not only your safety but your release, but I can’t promise anything. It’s very likely that those of us who remain here will either be summarily executed or thrown in chains and sold to slavers. So knowing this, I’ll again ask for-“ again two steps forward, in unison. “Alright, very well. We’ll hold a lottery. Everyone fall out, get your chit and your cup and muster back here. Let’s get a fire built up as well – it’s cold as a witch’s tit out here.”
The men did as they were instructed, and soon we had a raging bonfire in the center of the commons, burning the last of the firewood we’d reserved in the fort. The mood was somewhat jovial but subdued. We sat in the shadow and in the cloying reek of thousands of our dead comrades. The Lieutenant and I walked the handcart around to each group of men. I filled their cups with Prospero’s brandy, I took their chit into a sack, and I gave them their share of the company hoard. I made sure I knew each face, each name. I clasped their shoulders and I thanked them for being my brother. The cart was substantially lighter by the time I reached Tree and Sarge sitting together out of the way of the rest of the men.
“I was noting,” started Sarge in a dangerous tone, “that you didn’t mention me when you spoke of those who would be staying…”
“That’s because you’re not staying,” I said, dropping the handcart and pulling a parcel from it.
Sarge stood up and loomed quite effectively over me. “Beggin’ yer pardon sir but if you think I’m leavin’ your side in the dead of night I’m like to kick yer ass a little bit.”
“Fine, you can kick my ass tomorrow night,” I said, shoving the parcel into his arms. He pulled open a corner of it to see what was inside and he paled. “The Company Standard.” I confirmed, “If the rest of us don’t make it, I’m relying on you to keep our promise. Bruto’s taking the family jewels to Myca in Tarantia.” Sarge gritted his teeth and nodded slowly. “Once the men have had their brandy and an hour by the fire together, I need you to start coordinating the exodus.”
“Yessir,” he said quietly. “Sir?”
“Don’t say it or I’ll kick you square in the berries, Sergeant Major.”
“Yessir,” he responded. He tucked the standard under his arm and saluted smartly before heading off to join the men.”
I looked to Tree who’d been sitting quietly all this time; he pulled himself to his feet and shuffled over to where the Lieutenant and I were doling out the last of the brandy between us. He was a tiny little man, wrinkled beyond belief, and I think he had all of about one tooth left to him.
“I got some ideas boss,” he said, grinning his toothless grin briefly before becoming very somber, “some ideas’ll get everyone away tonight, give Zinny some heartache in the morning.”
“Good,” I said, handing the man my cup. He took a long drink of the brandy and sighed.
“But I’m not gonna be no slave again boss. Not gonna be a slave. Never again.” He looked me in the eyes for a long moment and I nodded. Tree had been ancient when I was a boy; I’d never known he had been a slave in whatever other life he’d lived before the Company. “I take care of the family tonight, that’s what I do. I give Zinny a shock at the same time. Real good shock.” I nodded, unable to speak for fear of my voice cracking. “You do good, get the family jewels outta here. Sarge’ll get ”˜em, he’s good people. “ He looked like he had something else to say, but he just nodded to himself, clasped me on the shoulders, turned to the Lieutenant and did the same, then shuffled off towards the tent he had shared with Dawg.
“You boys done good,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Don’t none of y’all go messin’ with my body in the mornin’ hear? Let Zinny do it!” He cackled loudly as he wove his way through the tents and bodies.
We drew twenty names out of the satchel, the rest of the men seemed jealous of the ones who were staying. Over the course of the next several hours small units of men slipped over the wall and away into the dark. Sarge’s group was the last to go, I pulled the ladder up after he had vanished into the night. Shortly thereafter the screams started coming from Zin’s encampment. Whatever it was that Tree had conjured up, it was nasty. To this day I don’t know what it was that tore through their camp that night, but it didn’t end until the first light of dawn, and it took my brother’s life with it. It took Zin until that afternoon before his troops were in any shape to start moving his siege engines towards the fort. We waited until they’d done all the work to slog the things through the mud and load them before we lowered our banners and opened the gates.
They suspected a trap sure, so it took them another few hours before a group of haggard men sure they were going to die stormed through the gate and found the twenty-two of us eating a late lunch by the fire, our weapons stacked neatly out of reach. It took another hour for one of the Nemedians to screw with Tree’s body while rifling through his tent and get attacked by thousands of tiny venomous spiders. Then another hour for General Zin to finally arrive. I’d met him once before, very briefly, while the Company was conducting business in his home province in Nemedia, and apparently he’d remembered me as well.
“Captain Rahl,” he said amicably after walking up and down the line of us on our knees and in shackles, “it’s been quite a long time, yes?”
I nodded. “Twelve years.”
He crouched down in front of me and laid a hand on my shoulder like an old friend. “You’ve cost me this war,” he said quietly, dangerously, “and tens of thousands of noble Nemedian soldiers. How should I respond to that, do you think?”
“I’ve got some ideas…” growled the Lieutenant from beside us. Zin pivoted on his heel and brutally struck the Lieutenant’s cheek with his elbow, then turned back to me as if nothing had happened.
“How…do you think, Captain?” he asked again, his voice barely a whisper.
“I really don’t care Zin,” I said, sounding bored and exhausted, “it’s just business.”
His eyes darkened. I looked at him and grinned devilishly.
“Cuz I don’t care ”˜bout your war…” I sang softly with a smile, “I don’t care ”˜bout your land…” several of the men joined in, and we all, all twenty-two men of the Rose, beaten, battered, naked, and in chains, sang the last verse together loudly like a bunch of drunken revelers.
“And I sure as hell don’t care about you!”
And that is the last thing I remember.