"Smelling Danger: A Black Company Story" is the third of the 6 short stories of Glen Cook's Black Company series. It was published in the 2011 anthology Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 edited by William K. Schafer. An edited version of the same story appeared as chapter 6 of the novel Port of Shadows, published in 2018.
In the city of Aloe, Croaker enters the Dark Horse tavern, the favorite watering hole for the Black Company which is garrisoned nearby. The place is nearly empty except for the minor wizard Goblin, the veteran soldier Otto, and a young local recruit named Sharps, who are playing a game of tonk. Croaker buys a beer from the barkeeper Markeg Zhorab and joins the card game. The four of them are escaping training exercises imposed by the Captain, who has been keeping the men busy partially on account of Sharps' lack of training.
Goblin riffs Croaker, the physician, for his absence from the free clinic. Croaker reminds Goblin that he is in the bar wasting time with Sharps. He then asks Goblin about the Third, the wizards' apprentice he shares with One-Eye. The Third and One-Eye have been sent away one yet another livestock census: busywork from the Captain apparently as punishment for his reckless behavior during "recent events".
Candy, a prominent sergeant and the third highest-ranking man in the Company, enters the bar and informs Croaker that the Captain needs to see him. Croaker guesses this must be fairly important and leaves with Candy. As they approach the brown adobe administration building of the garrison, Croaker expresses concern about a nearby "spin devil", small whirlwinds of dust and leaves. He is worried that the spin devils are the result of evil sorcery from some yet-unknown source. His fear is not allayed when Candy mentions that Silent, another wizard, has assured them the spin devils are harmless.
|“||An honest One-Eye is a One-Eye up to something. He doesn't want to attract attention.||”|
Candy leaves when Croaker enters the Captain's room. Waiting in silence, Croaker notes to himself that nobody can recall why the Captain was originally elected to his position, although he has earned universal respect over the years. The Captain finally speaks. He is concerned about the wizards One-Eye and Goblin, and asks if they have exhibited any especially strange behavior. They had been taken away for 2 full days by the Limper, and neither man has any memory of it. Croaker cannot supply any helpful feedback, so the Captain orders him to keep tabs on the two men. He reveals that he has read Croaker's annals, which is how he has learned about their blackmail of the Limper when they delivered Tides Elba to be sent to the Tower. Croaker and his companions had not reported their gambit to the Captain.
On his way out, Croaker realizes that One-Eye has indeed been acting strangely. Hagop joins him, and like Goblin earlier, he riffs Croaker for his absence from the infirmary. As they walk, the two men are distressed by more rolling "spin devils", with Croaker even stabbing at one. The calmness and quietude of Aloe are unsettling for veteran soldiers.
|“||I confessed, "I'm going nuts thinking something bad has to happen. It's to where I'm wishing it would instead of piling up the awful nothing."... Otto said, "You think too fucking much, Croaker."||”|
The Black Company has been an effective policing force for the city, and the Captain has kept his men out of trouble by keeping them busy with agriculture and productive civil engineering projects. But the lack of combat keeps Croaker thinking the other shoe will drop soon. They enter the Dark Horse, and Croaker calms down. Inside, Silent, Otto, Elmo, and Corey are playing tonk with some others watching. He joins them, and they briefly discuss the lack of communication from their employer: no emergency mental communications to Goblin, no mounted couriers from Whisper's army headquarters in the west, and, not even any routine airborne couriers. The usual table chatter mostly dries up until Silent hand-signs "smelling danger".
Then Goblin enters the bar with news of a big storm coming from the north. Confused, Elmo asks the local recruit Sharps if storms typically come from that direction this time of year. Sharps informs them that yes, every five years, a dramatic storm arrives. Croaker plays a miserable hand of tonk while Goblin, who is "older than stone", informs him of a painful sore he will bring to sick call.
After breakfast during the next morning, Croaker opens his infirmary and treats more cases of a itchy purplish velvet sore that seems to be spreading around. He uses a mixture of salt and borax to heal it. While it is easily cured and isn't dangerous, it is entirely new to the city of Aloe, and Croaker wonders about its origins.
Goblin arrives as promised and has the worst case yet of the purplish sore. The physician scrapes and cleans it out, a painful process, using distilled spirits to clean the wound and for Goblin to drink. Croaker removes a tiny object from the center of the sore: something like a splinter or a thorn. He orders Goblin to use his wizard's skills to learn what he can about it. Especially if perhaps he got it during his lost two days with the Limper. Croaker mentions that the Captain was asking after him and One-Eye. Goblin realizes that yes, One-Eye has been acting strangely: he had insisted on that foolish raid of the Temple of Occupoa which Croaker had ultimately called off after an intense argument. Meanwhile, the storm from the north is arriving.
The savage storm's hailstones are causing damage to the infirmary. The Captain enters. He wants a report on Goblin and treatment for the purple sore. He also mentions that Croaker must give One-Eye a physical inspection, against his will if necessary. A horrible downpour begins.
The storm has ended, leaving mud everywhere. Although there were no deaths in the city and few injuries, property damage is terrible. One-Eye is dragged screaming into the infirmary by the sergeant Candy and some others. Apparently, One-Eye has left the Third, who had been pummeled by the hail during their return from a livestock census, with a pig farmer. When Candy removes One-Eye's hat, the little wizard tries to kick him, so the sergeant punches him in the gut. Goblin arrives to help. They eventually knock him out with a concoction and Candy and his men leave. One-Eye's purple sore is by far the worst, even worse than Goblin's had been.
The Captain enters, having taken a break from reconstruction efforts outside alongside his men. He notes that One-Eye didn't treat the wound himself, which is surprising because the little wizard is Croaker's backup as physician. Croaker cleans the wound and finds another small splinter like the one Goblin had. The Captain leaves after some harsh words for Goblin, who reveals to Croaker that the little thorn is in fact a spider fang. The fangs were placed in both wizards to carry a spell of some kind, and the perpetrator is either the Limper, or more likely, Limper's accomplice, Whisper. Whisper is the Lady's proconsul in the east and the Black Company's commanding general.
As the company helps restore their own compound, the city itself, and the nearby agriculture, Goblin keeps One-Eye in a healing coma for five days. Silent is exhausting himself trying to dry the fields for replanting, Croaker hustles to cure more and more cases of the purple sores, which are spreading in the post-storm dampness.
On the sixth day of cleanup, Croaker finds himself alone with the bartender Markeg Zhorab in the Dark Horse. Zhorab is thankful for the Black Company's patronage of his bar and efforts in general to keep Aloe prosperous. Because of this, he confides that Rebels want him to spy on the Company for them. Croaker nonchalantly gives him permission to do so, knowing that everything the bartender will hear from Company men from now on will be carefully scripted.
With One-Eye still recuperating, Croaker informs the Captain about Zhorab's Rebel handlers. He tells Goblin that he has learned from locals that a Rebel leader called Cannon Shear has been ordered to destroy the Black Company. Cannon Shear is reportedly a cousin of Whisper, who was once herself a top-level Rebel before she was Taken.
Croaker explains his guess: Limper and Whisper, who utterly despise the Company, have isolated the band from the Lady. Whisper controls the couriers and can intercept any physical message they send westward, and, the spider-fang spells inside One-Eye and Goblin will compromise any attempt the wizards make to contact the Lady directly with their mental connection. Now that they are isolated, they can be wiped out by the Rebel Cannon Shear, who will function as the Limper's and Whisper's revenge. The two Taken don't even have to participate. Just sit back and watch from a distance.
Realizing this danger, the Company turns toward Cannon Shear. The bartender Zhorab reports that the Rebels were thrown off by the storm, but he does not know where they are. The Captain orders that Silent send a bird to locate the enemy force. Suddenly, One-Eye is acting irrational and dangerous again, so the Captain smacks him, knocks him out, and orders that he be crammed and sealed into a pickle barrel. Croaker finally goes to get his first good night's sleep in days.
|“||...the Old Man wanted a straight up, force to force engagement once he located Cannon Shear. Not good. We had not seen one of those since the Battle at Charm. Fewer than half of today's Company had seen that epic bloodletting.||”|
The annalist wakes up to find more than 30 men lined up for treatment at his infirmary. As he treats them, he learns that the Captain is drilling everyone for a force-to-force battle against Cannon Shear, as soon as the Rebel leader is found. Hearing this makes him anxious: the last time there was such a battle, the Battle of Charm, fewer than half today's Company had participated. After he helps his last patient, Elmo, with a broken finger, Croaker leaves the infirmary.
All around the compound, every Company brother is busily training and preparing a wide variety of equipment. They are making no effort to hide their preparations, hoping that perhaps some local spy will notice. The Captain orders Croaker to roll the pickle barrel with One-Eye inside into the room where some clerks have already sealed the Annals in waterproofed containers. One-Eye protests the entire way, but Croaker is unmoved, especially given the little wizard's unacceptable behavior recently.. A clerk helps Croaker roll it under the table, and hustles him out immediately.
Suddenly, some soldiers accompanied by Silent and Goblin carry the Third, the young apprentice of the wizards, into the infirmary on a stretcher. He had been clobbered by the storm earlier, and now he has shallow slash marks on his wrists. The Captain enters and orders that Croaker check for the purple sore. He needs to be awakened and questioned. Croaker finds the man's personal hygiene to be terrible, but he doesn't have a spider fang like the two senior wizards had. Goblin riffs Croaker about an absurd rumor that the Lady will arrive, upsetting him.
Croaker listens to Goblin's questioning of the Third. They learn while One-Eye was out on his wild-goose-chase assignment from the Captain, he was incessantly complaining to the Third about wanting to be back at the Company's compound. Instead of bitching about getting women or booze or even playing tonk, he just wanted to return to the building. And when the Third pressed him why, One-Eye had seemed confused. Ultimately, they got no specific answers about One-Eye's atypical behavior. The only useful knowledge gained is that the "spin devils" Croaker has been stressing about are truly just natural phenomena, and nothing magic.
The Third's injuries will keep him out of the upcoming action. But when finally shown his wrist wounds, he denies attempting suicide. Croaker wonders if One-Eye, for some reason, did it to him. He hustles out to join the departing force.
After about 9 miles, the Company stops and the Captain inspects them all. Somewhere, Goblin and Silent are using owls to find Cannon Shear's Rebel force. Five members of a pioneer squad, including two carried on litters, are brought to Croaker for medical attention. They have been stung extensively by paper wasps. Croaker explains they are lucky that they weren't stung by bald-faced hornets, which could have killed them. The pioneer squad leader complains that Marker dropped the wasp nest, but suddenly the Captain gives the man a warning look. He hushes up, and Croaker does not learn what they were up to. After he treats them, he is left alone with his thoughts, so he goes to sleep despite mosquitoes feasting on him.
The next morning, they all climb a wooded hill, and wait while the engineers reinforce a rickety bridge over a fast-moving river. They make it to grazing country, only to find herders moving their livestock toward the Company. They are fleeing from the incoming Rebel, confirming for the first time in Croaker's mind that Cannon Shear is indeed real. Marching on, they see a major dust cloud that could only be kicked up by a force of significant size. Candy brings Croaker a very detailed map, and tells him where to set up his field hospital. The battleground had already been chosen, and the men prepare it expertly. Croaker continues to realize he has been left out of the loop.
|“||While we splattered Cannon Shear, nearly damming that river with Rebel flesh, he kept us fixed, twenty-one miles out, while a second column hooked in on Aloe from farther east.||”|
The Rebels, less numerous than Croaker predicted, are foolhardy. They attempt to push through two bridges and many traps, all while subjected to the Company's concentrated missile fire. The Rebel dead nearly dam the river. But, he soon learns this was only part of Cannon Shear's force. Twenty-one miles out, Shear's other column simultaneously marched on Aloe from the east. This group, which proved to be merely panicky amateurs, was ambushed by the Lieutenant.
Croaker finally realizes why he has been kept in the dark. Why he has been so paranoid and confused about the purple sores and spin devils and other distractions. He is an involuntary traitor. The Limper had secretly ensorcelled his quills, allowing him to read every letter Croaker wrote for the Annals. But thankfully, the Captain is a genius and uncovered the threat. During the Limper's last visit to their compound, he observed the Limper making contact with Croaker's quills and inks. Without telling Croaker, the Captain "distracted, mislead, and mislaid" the annalist from the start, so his writings would be candid but useless to the Limper. His respect for the Captain, already high, only increases.
Croaker records what happened elsewhere from eyewitness testimony. While the two fighting halves of the Company crush Cannon Shear's two columns, the Limper descended upon the Company compound in his flying carpet. He used a sleep spell as a precaution to knock out anyone in the administration building, and snuck in. He is looking to retrieve the original copy of a parchment, written in his own hand, with an obscene insult directed at the Lady. This is another action which the Captain foresaw. The Limper detects One-Eye insult the pickle barrel, but does not kill the helpless man. He still needs One-Eye to execute his orders later, which will be delivered through the spider fang. One-Eye and Goblin are needed to track down and destroy the copies of the parchment. But first, right now, the Limper must steal the original.
The Limper plans to cram all the Company's papers into the empty barrels nearby, and escape quickly to find the parchment among them later. He cracks open a barrel, but suddenly a concealed magic spell causes the barrel to expel furious swarms of wasps and hornets. In agony and screaming, the Limper stuffs paperwork and flees on his carpet. He has no idea that Otto and Hagop, shielded from the anticipated sleep spell, have attached a mysterious device underneath his flying carpet.
The Company men have a big laugh: their hated enemy has been tricked and humiliated. Even better, the purple sores disappear from the city. One-Eye's destructive behavior has been explained: he had been partially brain-washed by the Limper.
Over the Plain of Fear, the Limper expertly flies his carpet, dodging the deadly monsters which always challenge outsiders. Without warning, the undetected device in the woodwork beneath his carpet bursts into flame, destroying half of it while he is soaring more 2,300 feet above the ground. In a free fall, he curses the Black Company. He must now travel on foot, with his namesake limp, through nightmarish territory. Although he will survive on account of his sorcery, he will not be on time where the Lady expects him to be.