"Bone Eaters: The Black Company On the Long Run" is the last of the 6 short stories of Glen Cook's Black Company series. It was published in the 2015 anthology Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams. It is one of only 2 short stories (the other being "Shaggy Dog Bridge") that was not adapted as a chapter in a subsequent Black Company novel.
The Annalist for the events is Croaker, who records the details of his promising new assistant, Chasing Midnight, and the Black Company's encounter with the lethal spirits of the Village of Hungry Ghosts.
Chronologically, this short story takes place between "Shaggy Dog Bridge" and the novel The White Rose. Both "Shaggy Dog Bridge" and "Bone Eaters" take place during the first 4 years of the 6-year gap between the novels Shadows Linger and The White Rose.
Encounter with the young brigands Edit
The Black Company and a band of refugees from the Lady's Empire is thinly-stretched and moving along an obscure path through rough countryside in the northern continent. Ahead of the line is a scout group led by the unreliable Whittle and Fall Woo. They are intercepted by a haggard group of seven amateur brigands, poorly-armed and most quite young. The lead brigand is immediately harassed by a disgusting magic illusion cast upon him by Goblin, one of the Company's mainstays and a minor wizard. Horrified, the lead brigand gallops off, abandoning his six comrades who are disarmed by Whittle.
As Croaker rides up, he realizes that Whittle has left the six captive bandits with Rusty and Robin. Rusty is widely hated by the rest of the Company, and the naive Robin is his only friend. Rusty is attempting to rape the young female brigand, a girl of 14, but seems to be impotent. He has also knocked down Robin, who apparently tried to intervene. Croaker spurs his mount forward, but a low branch knocks him off the animal, and Rusty kicks him while he's down. The spectacle ends when Darling – the leader of the New White Rose Rebellion – and Silent ride up. Rusty wilts under Darling's disapproving disdain and Silent's dangerous glower. Croaker recalls the grim memory of the first time he and the Company encountered Darling, so many years ago, when she was raped by soldiers at the age of nine.
Newcomers to Darling's rebellion Edit
Croaker, as the Company's physician, briefly examines the auburn-haired brigand girl first, at Darling's request. Darling is concerned she is pregnant because she has been traveling with males in the hinterland. But she is not. Croaker then checks Robin, who stupidly is more concerned about the fate of his friend Rusty. He finally looks over the other young male brigands. No one has any serious injuries. Observing carefully, Croaker surmises that one of the young men must be the brother of the auburn-haired girl. None of them seem to speak any language that the Company speaks. More soldiers arrive on the scene and Rusty nervously awaits his punishment.
|“||She was a witch. A menarche-onset wild talent who did not yet understand what she was... Wild talents seldom prosper. They scare the mud out of people. Evil sorcerers begin as local nuisances who grow to become regional afflictions. The worst then begin raising wicked armies and putting up dark towers. So why not burn them before they set the earth to shaking?||”|
Meanwhile, the bandit girl begins to wretch in pain when Darling arrives nearby. This tips off Croaker that she is a witch. Darling is surrounded by an anti-magic bubble, called the "null", and the young girl is hurt without understanding why. Empathizing with her, Darling instructs Silent to train her, keep her safe, and keep her separated from Darling herself so the null does not hurt her again. She also issues an explicit, global order that no one is to harass or even approach her sexually.
Some of the refugees following the Company can communicate with the seven young former bandits, so Darling invites them to become part of her New White Rose Rebellion movement. They join and pull their weight even though they are so far outside of the Lady's Empire that they have barely heard of the Lady and are completely unfamiliar with Whisper, the Lady's general who is pursuing their new hosts. Rusty makes himself scarce and seems to avoid punishment. Silent delegates the care and feeding of the 6 newcomers to Robin.
Chasing Midnight Edit
The girl's name is Chasing Midnight, and the brother Croaker observed among the six young men is indeed her twin, named Chasing Moonlight. They became brigands on account of poverty, poor crops, and the like. Croaker is impressed with her intelligence, as she learns enough of their language to get by within merely a week's time. Midnight is comfortable around Robin, since he stood up for her. When she realizes Croaker is educated (he is a physician and Annalist) she shadows him closely. Her magic talent is revealed to be an aura that diffuses male sexual interest, explaining Rusty's impotence during his attempted rape. Midnight reveals that the senior brigand, the one who fled from Goblin's disgusting illusion, was an older brother whom she hated for his abusiveness.
Two weeks after joining up with the itinerant group, Midnight confides to Croaker that she thinks the refugees fear her. Croaker confirms that they do, because she is a witch and they are refugees from the Empire of the Lady, another sorceress. Her brother Moonlight and the 4 other young men who joined with them have become upset that they are still doing the drudge work and fatigue details. Croaker is disappointed by their attitude.
Apparent relief from Imperial pursuit Edit
Croaker is startled by the inexplicable disappearance of Whisper's scouts. Where they should be zealously eager for revenge following the losses inflicted on them "not so long ago" (the events of "Shaggy Dog Bridge"), the Imperials have unexpectedly faded away. With no more pressure from their pursuers and with the villages they pass through being less and less hostile, the Company now moves slowly. Some refugees are even settling down, departing from the Company's tail of hangers-on. To Midnight's apparent surprise, her brother Moonlight and the 4 other former brigands desert the group. But, she has no desire to leave. In fact, Croaker is so impressed with her willingness to learn and her work ethic that he plans to replace one of his young Company physician's assistants (presumable the Joro, the "most useless") with her.
One-Eye returns with news Edit
|“||One-Eye... a living legend... Said legend was older than dirt, often hard to distinguish from dirt, and when not engaged in criminal activities, about as ambitious as dirt.||”|
One-Eye returns after a long absence with interesting news explaining the lack of Imperial attention of late. He reports that two of the new Taken had been killed during Whisper's recent assault on the castle belonging to the Master and his minion Blind Emon. The remaining pair of new Taken, including Whisper herself, were badly injured and forced to tend to their own recovery. This left the Imperial rank-and-file vulnerable to One-Eye's spirited torments and miserable illusions, totally draining their fighting spirit. The Lady called them off and One-Eye is boastful of his success. But the threat is not gone permanently: the Lady still has the Eye on them. If Whisper recovers, she will return with "the last ounce of mercy boiled out" and if she doesn't, the Lady will send other Taken or come out personally for them. During the conversation, One-Eye notices Chasing Midnight and admires her creepily, but Darling puts a stop to that immediately.
At Croaker's clinic, it's more of the usual. He is treating the young soldier Twiller for the clap, which he probably got from a woman whom Swain bedded. And Swain probably got it from one of Twiller's girls, back when Twiller had it last. Next is Robin, who is simply depressed that Midnight does not return his interest as much he wishes she would.
A menacing threat down the road Edit
Midnight wisely deduces that One-Eye did not tell the whole story when he reunited with the group. He failed to mention that they were approaching a fabled but menacing place called the Village of Hungry Ghosts. Croaker presumes this was because One-Eye was concealing a potential score, as usual. When Croaker presses Midnight for more local knowledge about the place, she can only share some vague ghost stories. But he can corroborate her stories with similar ones he had heard in the eastern reaches of the Empire, back when the Black Company served the Lady there. The hungry ghosts were like "vampire phantoms" of uncertain origin which possessed the living and consumed them slowly from within. This further explains the Imperials hanging back: they are keeping away from this real threat. He goes to discuss this information with Darling and the Company's leader, the Lieutenant.
A vengeful assault, interrupted Edit
At night, Croaker is heading for the latrine when he stumbles upon someone being assaulted. It turns out to be Rusty being ambushed by Chasing Moonlight and his friends, who have returned to avenge Chasing Midnight's earlier humiliation. Croaker swats the inexperienced youngsters around until Company brothers respond to his calls for help. Rusty has been cut up, but will probably live. Croaker has Midnight assist with the suturing of Rusty's new wounds, and is quite enamored of her self-control and professionalism. Darling overlooks Moonlight's earlier desertion, and simply gives him and his friends extra duty shifts.
Chasing Midnight continues to impress Edit
In a meeting of the officers, the Lieutenant announces that they have fallen under a glamour. The spell is too far outside Darling's null to be countered by it. It is keeping them marching toward the Village of Hungry Ghosts. They cannot escape it and must confront the threat. Croaker has brought Midnight to the meeting because he predicts she could play a leadership role in the Black Company's future. However, Darling is not quite happy with the young woman's attendance and seems to be worried that perhaps Croaker has been seduced by her.
Bloodshed at the Village of Hungry Ghosts Edit
The Village of Hungry Ghosts turns out to be an ancient, badly dilapidated ruins. It is emitting a kind of siren call that beckons everyone to enter it. Darling has situated herself at a point where her null is blocking her followers from the siren call. And up ahead, outside the null and closer to the Village, are the sorcerers Silent, Goblin, and One-Eye, along with Midnight. They are working together to resist the siren call for themselves, and relaying messages back to Darling via nearby Croaker and the Lieutenant. The sorcerers determine there are only three incarnate hungry ghosts, which possess the bodies of an old woman and two wild asses. The rest of the ghosts are discorporate but present the most serious threat.
|“||Sometimes, our most potent resources conflict. Darling's null, though, never spread out enough for general use in battle. We employed her in ambushes and where sorcery-capable antagonists were unaware of what they faced.||”|
Darling is pressed by the mob behind her and having her energy sapped by the evil sorcery in the air encountering her null. She asks if the hungry ghosts can be killed, and Silent confirms it is possible. But before they can develop a plan, four people are overcome by the siren call, and they circumvent Darling's roadblock by climbing a rocky hill. They are: two refugees; one of Midnight's bandit cousins; and Thorodd Asgeir – a "mildly retarded cook's helper" and member of the Black Company. They are unable to hear the shouts for them to turn around, and Midnight has to be physically restrained from running to save her cousin. The four are soon enveloped by a swarm of the discorporate hungry ghosts, and are gruesomely ripped into pieces.
Witnessing the hideous event, they realize there are many more discorporate ghosts than they first expected. Worse, Croaker wonders if the Lady plans to seize control of the Company by taking command of any ghosts which come to possess members of their group. One-Eye agrees this could be possible. The overall threat is more dangerous than they thought.
Enacting Midnight's invasion plan Edit
|“||...what looked like snakes of water slithered and splashed in the air on all the fringes of Darling's tightened null.||”|
Darling reports that the hungry ghosts might be vulnerable now, since the feeding frenzy has broken their concentration. Chasing Midnight, confident and unafraid, speaks up with a plan she has formulated. Silent relays it to Darling, and warns her of the risks, but Darling accepts it and proceeds. Darling cautiously enters the Village closely surrounded by Elmo, Otto, Hagop, Croaker (who is armed with the black bow that had been given to him by the Lady herself), and lastly Rusty (so that he can redeem himself). They are frightened by the discorporate hungry ghosts which are visibly swarming immediately outside Darling's null.
Darling tracks one of the possessed wild asses, and Croaker slays it with an arrow. Rusty charges forward to stab the felled beast, seemingly outside the null, but nothing happens to him. As Midnight predicted, the slaying of the ass frightens the discorporate ghosts, which begin panicking. Darling takes heart and they find the possessed woman hiding beneath a stone slab. Croaker is moved by the wizened woman's expression, and no one volunteers to do the deed, so Darling takes Otto's axe and beheads the woman herself. They continue and finally kill the last possessed wild ass, while the sorcerers and Chasing Midnight successfully hold back everyone else. The threat is finally defeated when all the discorporate hungry ghosts are systematically trapped within livestock, which will then be slaughtered, annihilating the ghosts permanently.
Croaker and Darling have a discussion about Chasing Midnight. Croaker assures her that he is not romantically interested, but instead wishes to foster the girl's education in a fatherly way. He is candidly worried that she might be corrupted by the hardness of the recent events.
In service to the Magistrates of Rue Edit
Several weeks later, the Black Company is negotiating with the Magistrates of Rue, who seek protection from their predatory neighbors, the Dank (both outside the Lady's Empire). The Company's reputation has preceded them: both the city of Rue and the Dank have heard tales of the Company's exploits back when they were in the service of the Lady. The Company realizes that the leaders of Rue are planning to double-cross them because they hastily make a deal without trying to negotiate. This comes as no surprise to Croaker the historian, who is well aware that most of the Company's past employers conducted themselves in the same manner.
The haunted soldier Edit
Croaker notices that Rusty's whole personality has changed for the better since the Village of Hungry Ghosts. Even Chasing Midnight does not seem to have a problem with him any more. Eventually Croaker figures it out: Rusty's body is haunted by presumably the last hungry ghost. The possession occurred when the young soldier rushed just outside of the null to stab the first wild ass. Overall, though, this turn of events is not cause for serious concern. The Company already has confirmed that the ghost is trapped within Rusty, doomed to die with him. It cannot leave his body without the aid of a colony of similar entities. And no other such colony is known to exist.
Chasing Midnight, her brother Moonlight, and the other former bandits disappear without a trace during their time in Rue. Darling is unconcerned and the Company as a whole is distracted with their successful skirmishes against the Dank. One week after Midnight disappeared, Rusty vanishes too. Robin is deeply worried about his old friend but, predictably, no one else cares. Rusty is still widely hated and the hungry ghost inside him poses no threat.
What darkness her future may hold Edit
Whisper, only partially recovered from her recent battle against Blind Emon, surreptitiously enters Rue one winter night. She hands Rue's senior leaders an ultimatum from the Lady to betray the Black Company, and they accept. But this is all observed from the shadows by spies, namely, rats controlled by One-Eye. Before the double-cross can happen, the Company strikes the traitors first and leaves the city with considerable loot. On their way out the eastern gate, Croaker is informed that Rusty's gruesomely mutilated corpse was discovered. He had been tortured. The historian knows that Chasing Midnight was behind it, and dreads what darkness her future may hold.
Continuity and trivia Edit
- Although it is not explicitly stated, the events of "Bone Eaters" seem to occur toward the end of the first 4 years of the 6-year-total gap between the novels Shadows Linger and The White Rose. If this is true, then, shortly after the end of this short story, the Black Company negotiated with the talking menhirs, entered the Plain of Fear, and set up their headquarters in the Hole (events which occurred 2 years before the opening of The White Rose). Details supporting this are: Croaker's assertion that they have been in "a flight already years in duration", and their proximity to the eastern city of Rue.
- Croaker incorrectly recalls the Black Company's rescue of 9-year-old Darling from "some Rebel Rustys" which took place years prior, in The Black Company. Darling's rapists were actually Imperial soldiers of Lane's force in the Limper's army. Darling's grandfather Flick and her slaughtered village were actually Rebels/Circle sympathizers.
- It is not established if the events of "Bone Eaters" take place before or after the notorious Battle of Queen's Bridge.