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"Cranky Bitch" is a short story of Glen Cook's Black Company series. It was published in the 2021 anthology Songs of Valor edited by Rob Howell & Chris Kennedy. It is chronologically the first of the short stories encompassed by the On The Long Run story arc, all of which take place during the first 4 years of the 6-year gap between the novels Shadows Linger and The White Rose. Specifically, the narrative takes place between Shadows Linger (picking up perhaps almost immediately where the novel ended) and the short story "Leta of the Thousand Sorrows".

The Annalist for the events is Croaker, who records the details of the Black Company's contract with wealthy clients in Chimney, the presence of the strangely-familiar twin youngsters "Lacksluck" and "Luckless", and bloody sea skirmishes with pirates who are under the grim influence of the new Taken.

Plot summary[]

The storm at Chimney port[]

The Black Company is aboard Cranky Bitch, anchored in the harbor of Chimney, during a ferocious dry lightning storm. As spiderwebs of lightning seem to search Chimney’s hills, the Company’s young ward Darling shows uncharacteristic fear. Using her finger speech, she says that the storm "feels like dead things talking", proving Croaker’s guess that it is sorcery and not a natural storm. Suddenly rain and hail pummel the ship. Now belowdecks, in the vast master cabin, Darling sheds her fear.

The Company’s recently-elected leader – the Lieutenant – orders his men to go search for leaks, but to use a witch light conjured by one of the wizards One-Eye, Goblin, or Silent instead candles. Otto informs the Lieutenant that all 3 wizards are drunk on liberty… even Silent, who rarely allows himself to be separated from Darling. After a giant wave causes them to drag their anchor, one of Show Boy’s men goes topside to confirm the danger has passed when the storm seems mostly over.

...Goblin and One-Eye sprawled like wet carpets in the bottom of the first boat back, so blasted they had to be slung aboard with the smaller cargo hoist.

The next day, boats return the men who had been on liberty during the nighttime storm. Everyone is shocked at the damage to the Bitch, especially to the mainmast, which has lost two fathoms to a lightning strike. The first boat brings back One-Eye and Goblin, who are unconscious, reeking, and must be lifted with a cargo hoist. Sergeant Elmo – Croaker’s closest friend – strikes Goblin’s back, and the old wizard vomits overboard. Before the old wizards are hauled away to recover, Goblin drunkenly mentions a strange insight about the sorcery of the storm. Darling is oddly flustered.

Candy brings a pair of strays[]

Candy is the Company number two, a low-key guy who gets stuff done without much showoff.
As is usual with us, his background is mysterious, but his shadowed wellspring had gifted him
with social skills superior to those of his compatriots.

In the cabin that serves as sickbay for the Bitch, Candy arrives with a pair of twins in their mid-teens whom he apparently rescued from an alley in Chimney. Candy actually holds the second-highest position in the band, the rank of Lieutenant, despite the Company’s choice to continue calling their new Captain "the Lieutenant". When a soldier named Barker lustfully eyes the twins, Candy politely threatens him, and Darling stares him down. While Croaker checks the flea-infested teens in his role as physician, the young woman identifies herself as Lacksluck and the young man, Luckless. Croaker doubts their explanation of a significant wound Lacksluck has on her left side, and Darling has mixed feelings about the pair.

Those two had a secret power. It stirred the ghosts of empathetic memory.
It made our worst hardcases want to look out for them and,
more importantly, not to abuse them.

Croaker questions Candy to try and figure out why he has uncharacteristically brought in the pair of strays. Candy cannot sufficiently explain himself, other than that the twins remind him of someone he cared about. Soon, the twins are working in the galley, where they turn "out to be the finest cooks the Company had known in decades".

"Maybe we better dust off our backdoor chastity belts"[]

Croaker reveals that he had come up with the name Cranky Bitch for the ship. In part, because the vessel was difficult, but also as a pejorative directed at their most recent former employer, the Lady.

Since money is needed for repairs to the ship, the Lieutenant has taken a contract with the Seamen's Guild and the Houses of Istven. But he has done so without consulting the senior members of the group, and no one is enthusiastic about the job. The Guild and the Houses will pay them to escort Chimney’s merchant vessels in convoy work. Recently, one in four ships associated with these organizations have been captured in the Gap by the pirates from the Pocatose, an archipelago south and west of Chimney. When Croaker raises some concerns, the Lieutenant reassures him that Master Sylus – the man in charge of Cranky Bitch’s Juniperen crew – will support the decision.

Eight days pass while the ship is refitted and prepped for all kinds of contingencies. The Bitch is the center of a convoy of 12 ships. As Candy learns the duties of a ship’s officer, he and Croaker are still uncertain about the Traveler twins and Darling’s unexplained fear about them. At departure time, 3 of the ships remain behind in fear. The other 9 are heavily laden with merchant goods. Croaker and Elmo are not surprised by their employers’ obvious motive: to get the Black Company and the Pocatose pirates to cancel out one another at sea.

The uneven sea battle[]

The Pocatose corsairs arrive as expected, "at least two score vessels, each with fewer than twenty men aboard". Artillery, combined with sorcery from One-Eye, Goblin, and Silent that scuttles enemy ships, eliminates the badly outmatched pirate threat. There are few convoy casualties with the notable exception of the Traveler twins. Lacksluck suffers a cut on her upper arm that requires 7 stitches, and her brother Luckless is thrown from the rigging when Master Sylus suddenly maneuvers the ship during the battle.

As Croaker closes the sickbay that evening, Darling and Silent arrive. Carefully, they explain Silent had seen something in the sky possibly resembling a flying carpet, right when the Bitch made the maneuver that caused Luckless to fall. They may be under the observation of the new Taken. Silent and Darling ask Croaker to relay this to the Lieutenant and Candy.

The first northbound convoy and second sea battle[]

Cranky Bitch leaves the convoy at the Strait of Vermust, which leads to the Sea of Torments... waters controlled by the Lady's Empire. They put in at Kadith. There, they are joined by 14 merchantmen, headed for Chimney and ports north. As they sail, they demolish a second Pocatose attack, with Croaker dumbfounded at the pirates’ stupidity for making the same mistake twice. And, despite being belowdecks this time, Luckless sustains another minor injury during the Bitch’s maneuvers. In harbor at Chimney, their employers pay the Black Company well and suggest another job at sea.

Contacted by the Lady[]

Croaker is startled from his rest by a shooting pain in his right shoulder, and a brief, soundless vision of the Lady. She has found him. And, he is haunted by bizarre half-memories that seem to indicate they were lovers, though this seems impossible. He informs the Lieutenant of the visitation and the danger it represents.

New mission from the Houses of Istven[]

Though the Pocatose have suffered terrible losses in manpower from both sea battles, a leader in the Houses of Istven has made the proposition that the Black Company be hired to attack the islands directly. Lacksluck emotionally warns Croaker that Cranky Bitch should not attack the Pocatose islands, or they will die. Then, for the next two days, the Traveler twins seemed to disappear. The Black Company and the Juniperen crew are left with "old Snoggle’s stand-alone cookery".

Don't poke the bear.
You poke the bear, he'll take your stick and
make you eat it from the backward end.

The Lieutenant is of the same mind as Croaker: this new proposition from the Houses is a con, and the Black Company will not take the bait. Instead they will sail aboard the Bitch elsewhere, and continue their flight from the Lady. But, when Lacksluck and Luckless reappear, the Lieutenant inexplicably has a complete change of mind. He now wishes to follow the same prescription for the Pocatose which the Lady had for pirates the Sea of Torments decades earlier. He wishes to exterminate all the people from the archipelago. But first, they will escort a second southbound convoy to the Strait of Vermust.

The second southbound convoy[]

The night before the Bitch departs with the second southbound convoy, Candy, Elmo, Darling, and Silent meet Croaker on the deck. They all agree the Lieutenant’s sudden desire to attack the Pocatose islands is misguided. The twins are suspected. Croaker is wary of the dense shadows in the brightly moonlit night, but cannot explain why.

Sailing south in great weather, the lookouts occasionally seem to spot flying objects in the far distance. Birds? Or, new Taken aboard flying carpets? But there is not a third sea battle, and only 2 Pocatose lookout vessels are seen before they flee.

One day short of the Strait of Vermust, Croaker confronts the Lieutenant about his "urge to scourge the Pocatose" as promised. The conversation leaves the Lieutenant deeply confused. Less than 2 hours later, Lacksluck addresses Croaker as "Dad" and asks him why the soldiers and crew rarely speak with her or her brother anymore. With Darling present, Croaker explains it is because the twins "keep tripping the alarm strings" and are widely believed to have somehow influenced the Lieutenant’s bizarre change of mind.

Croaker notices the wizards are helping Candy make unexplained adjustments to his numerous artillery engines.

The second northbound convoy[]

Now in a convoy of 19 ships, they sail through a storm and approach the south end of the Gap. Elmo awakens Croaker to tell him that Luckless has been spotted so far up the mainmast, that he is at the edge of Darling’s null. Topside, the boy is staring down at the business end of Hagop’s sniper’s crossbow. Hagop shoots, piercing his target, but Luckless does not fall.

The Lieutenant asks Master Sylus to have some of his sailors bring the boy down. He then asks Silent to go up and figure out what Luckless was doing, but Silent cannot handle high places. As the Lieutenant turns to Goblin, One-Eye leaps into action just to one-up his old rival. Despite his notorious fear of ships and water, the elderly One-Eye deftly makes it to the top even before the sailors. When he comes down with a red pennant that Luckless was planting to mark their vessel, they realize that Lacksluck has literally disappeared into a nearby shadow. The semi-conscious Luckless is mumbling incoherently in TelleKurre, the extinct language from the days of the Domination. Croaker soon extracts Hagop's crossbow bolt from him, and his sister is nowhere to be found.

The new Taken and the third sea clash[]

Three new Taken aboard flying carpets are spotted in the distance, and about 50 Pocatose boats approach the Bitch reluctantly. With One-Eye working fearlessly from the mainmast crow's nest, the wizards once again pull apart the timbers of the approaching pirate boats. Then, one of the new Taken (riding a carpet of “the small personal size given the least favored”) makes a plummeting attack. But the Lieutenant is ready, and 8 special ballistae with sorcery powered by all three wizards fire upwards. The missiles intercept both the attacking Taken and the projectile the enemy has dropped. The Taken is pierced in multiple places, and slams into the deck. Croaker does not know this Taken's name, but observes he/she had only one hand and an expression of “startled agony” before the burning corpse is thrown overboard. As the battered pirates flee, the Lieutenant orders his people not to fire on the retreating enemy. Although the distant Taken retreat, the Company knows the surviving pair will not fall for their last trick, the high-angle ballistae, again.

Upon questioning some of the pirate survivors, the Black Company learns that the people of the Pocatose archipelago were forced by the 3 new Taken to attack Cranky Bitch every time. Faced with the Takens' alternative of all the villages of the Pocatose being exterminated, they chose to make their three suicidal assaults on the well-armed vessel as the lesser of two evils. The Lieutenant releases the captives safely. Croaker states that the new Taken were not behaving as if they were acting on the orders of the Lady. He strongly suspects they are carrying out an unsanctioned, independent endeavor. But everyone acknowledges that the Lady will be deeply displeased by the loss of one of her champions.

Where to flee next?[]

After a lively discussion, the Black Company decides to continue north to Chimney to collect their valuable equipment and animals, as well as their promised substantial pay. Then, they argued about what to do next. Some wished to continue sailing aboard Cranky Bitch after leaving Chimney, and to decide their destination later. But some others who hated sea travel, most prominently One-Eye, wish to try a land route. They want to disembark “inland from the coast” at “the western verge of a vast wilderness, country known almost entirely through rumor and legend”.

Final anchorage at Chimney[]

As they approach Chimney, a succession of developments and realizations set a grim mood for the Black Company. The Juniperen crew of the Bitch is afraid that they will be abandoned to the Taken. Some are overheard by Silent to be wondering how they could sell out the mercenary gang. Luckless is still missing, and Lacksluck has escaped the watchful eye of Darling. And, Croaker realizes that their current employers, the Seamen's Guild and the Houses of Istven, have no use for them anymore and are almost certainly poised to sell them out. They prepare for the inevitable backstab.

They are boarded by 6 senior officials from the Houses of Istven, escorted by 12 armed men. As predicted, they announce that the Black Company should disarm. Instantly, the Lieutenant interrupts them, and orders them hurled overboard. Those who fight back are fatally wounded and sink. Eventually the surviving escorts are allowed to escape, but the officials are kept in the water until some drown. The 3 survivors are pulled out, and after confirming they understand their situation, are sent away with a list of supplies the Black Company will accept as payment.

Since there is no consensus about what they should do next, the Lieutenant simply decides. They will go into the wilderness overland, instead of sailing to parts unknown aboard the Bitch. Before they leave Chimney, the men enjoy a few nights on the town. Croaker and Elmo briefly encounter Lacksluck and Luckless, who disappear into thin air upon entering a nearby shadow.

Continuity and trivia[]

  • Lacksluck and Luckless, respectively, are Baku and Shin, the supernatural twins who claimed to be the children of Croaker and the Lady at least two years ago in Port of Shadows. But, neither Croaker nor anyone else in the Black Company remembers them due to their memories from that time being mysteriously erased.
  • It is possible that the unnamed, one-handed new Taken who is killed in this short story is Two Dead, a sorcerer of "almost Taken caliber" from the novel Port of Shadows whose arm required amputation. If this is accurate, he was not recognized by Croaker for the same reason that Baku and Shin were not recognized: those memories had been erased, as detailed in Port of Shadows.
  • "Cranky Bitch" introduces new information about the series' geography, most notably, the Strait of Vermust and the Gap, significant bodies of water to the west of the Sea of Torments.
  • Usage note - the vessel, Cranky Bitch, is never referred to as "the" Cranky Bitch. The definite article "the" is omitted, unless the nickname "the Bitch" is being used.
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