A/N: I assume, if you came across this fic, it's because you enjoy LotR and wanted to read fiction set in that world. Well, ideally you'll be getting that and a great deal more besides. If you lack familiarity with the Black Company series by Glen Cook, I hope that I've made the style and and characters appealing enough to hold your interest and that lack of context will not keep you from understanding what's going on.
Also, go find a copy of the Black Company and read it. It'll make you a deeper person, I swear.
If you are familiar with the Black Company, then I hope that, like me, the idea of the Company serving Sauron the Great makes you wonder how Tolkien's wonderfully crafted world would have appeared to someone like Croaker, or Raven, or the Lady. This fic is my attempt to reconcile these two distinct and colorful worldviews into a single cohesive story, and I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Feedback is, of course, welcome.
EDIT: My new story set in the Avatar universe is up. Check it out under my profile page.
In those days the Company was in service to the Eye of Barad-dur, the Dark Lord of Mordor. I'll never understand why these raving sorcerous overlord types give themselves names like "Bloodfang the Foul," or "Lord Slaughter," or whatever. It can't possibly earn them universal acceptance. If I was an emperor, I would call myself "Lord Galadel the Kind," or something like that. No one could object to being ruled by someone named that. Then I could rule my conquests with an iron fist and no one would revolt. Think about it- would you rebel against someone named "Galadel the Kind"? You'd feel ridiculous.
Heh. The Old man didn't want me to be Annalist at first- he said I didn't take it seriously enough. I take it seriously, right?
Anyway. The way it is is, the Dark Lord of Barad-dur... gods, even I feel like taking up arms against him with a name like that, and he's paying my wages.
The general situation is, the Lidless Eye has himself a cozy little stronghold- a fair sized chunk of land with fuck off huge mountain ranges three quarters the way around it, with real strong fortresses at the only two entrances. No one gets in to Mordor, no one gets out of Mordor, lest he says so. He's got himself a lovely little homebase that ain't no one's gonna get him out of, but that's not enough for him, no sir. Being content with what you got is not a speciality of the really high-class sorcerors. They always gotta to expand and dominate, and the only ways he has to advance is north into a swamp with the lovely and inviting name of the Dead Marshes (I don't even want to know how it got that name), or west across a well-defended river to a country called Gondor. And Gondor supposedly has the most professional army in this part of the world, ourselves excluded, obviously. Nobody's better than the Black Company. Always outnumbered but never outfought, that's us. Obviously, if the Eye of Barad-dur wants to break out of his homeland and get into the really serious business of world conquest, Gondor needs to bite the dust first. To force-feed the Gondorians some of that fine gourmet dust, he needs an ass-kicking army. And if you need your army to kick some ass and take some names, you come to us.
My name is Haroun, the Annalist of the Black Company. Haroun's not the name I was born with, but then, ain't no one goes by their real name in this outfit. It's my job to chronicle the life of the Company. If we take someone on, I record his name. When a brother falls in battle, I record his death. For most of us, it is the only immortality we have to look forward to, since few if any of us have a use for religion. I maintain the written records, keep the history of the Black Company alive, and forge another link in a chain that reaches so far back into history that I kinda think that there never was no time when the Company wasn't swapping violence for cash. You go back to the old days, the mythological times where djinni and gods first shot the shit and formed the world according to their fancy, I bet you'll find our forerunners agreeing to slit some devil's throat in exchange for a pot of enchanted gold.
It is an indisputable fact that our Annals, which I gotta haul personally everywhere we march, go back 750 years, and it's stated in the earliest Annals we got that we lost at least two hundred years worth of history that came before it. If my Company doesn't go back at least a millenium, it will likely cross that milestone in my lifetime. Show me a dynasty with a lineage like that, I tell you. When you march in the Company, brother, you stand on the shoulders of giants. We stand six hundred strong and are better armed and provisioned than any other standing army in the part of the world. We are elite, we are dedicated, we got esprit right up the corps. And we'll serve any warlord you care to name if the price is right and he don't try to backstab us.
The Dark Lord of Mordor has purchased our service, and we shall serve him faithfully until our contract of five years is up or he welches on us. Which is why, today, we're seeing action for the first time in two years. Lack of proper employment has not dulled our swords, nor worn our crossbows' strings. We have spent the unending months sweating our weakness away under the merciless gaze of Bullet, our Sergeant. Bullet is as close you can get to a dwarf without actually being a dwarf, standing about 5' 3" and weighing at least two hundred and thirty pounds armed and armored- I've seen him single-handedly break down shieldwalls by swatting aside the enemy spears and shoulder charging the poor bastards behind them. He's got this intimidating huge black beard obscuring most of face, and tiny little eyes that always seem to be glaring at you, even when he's in a good mood. You know where you stand with Bullet. He was a senior brother in the Company when I joined up eight years ago- a veteran's veteran. With him keeping us whipped into shape, we'll be fit for any battle the Lidless Eye cares to throw our way.
The only real complaint any of us grunts have about the whole business is, we gotta work with the uruks. Uruks are creepy looking buggers, a bit shorter and broader than a man could realistically be, with yellow skin. Fucking yellow skin. Not that sorta off-white color like the Children of Hsien, our honored ancestors who at one time made up the bulk of the Company. They are fucking yellow. Like daisies, or like they're all suffering from malaria or something. Not to mention- fangs. The uruks have fangs like wolves. Those who follow after me, my future brothers, may not credit it, but they have literal fangs, and they ain't just for show. I've learned enough of their tongue to overhear them; it turns out they enjoy a nice tasty human now and then. Who the hell wants a bow-legged, malaria ridden man-eater next to them on a shield wall? None of us are sure whether they're human beings in real bad shape, or a different race entirely, or even a magically bred creation. Sapper, our pet wizard, remains aloof and mysterious on matter, drops hints that they are formed from the leftover cold aura that fills the voids between the stars. We reckon that means he don't have a clue either. There's also this race of bloody great bastards, must be at least 15 feet tall and five feet wide, that the natives of Mordor call trolls. They use dead tree branches like clubs and big-ass rocks like boxing gloves. They look a bit like a bigger version of Bullet, actually. We don't mind them so much, seeing as we would have no objection at all to a couple of the great brutes charging at the other guys. Less work for us, right? Rumor has it there is a special caste that have trained in arms and have custom made armor and mauls. To which we all agree- thank the gods we signed on with this team and not the other fellows. Naturally, once the Captain found out about the trolls, he had himself a strategy meeting with the Lieutenant and the Sergeant to figure out how to kill them if we had to. We got to practice our axe work and our physical stamina for a month. Bullet almost pissed himself with glee. Company policy is to always remain in a position of relative power with our employer, a policy that has saved our hides more than once in my time alone.
We had been killing time at Minas Morgul, training under Bullet and gambling our pay on never ending rounds of Tonk. Minas Morgul... Minas translates as tower, I know that much. Morgul, I think, translates something like Death Ghosts. Dark Ghoul? I'm not sure, I don't speak the lingo very well yet, but I reckon the Red Eye has the right kind of personality to name his western-most fortress the Death Ghost Tower. On the other hand, The Tower of Dark Ghouls has a certain ring to it as well. I guess it just a wizard thing. I know that if Sapper, being the unnervingly vicious little bastard that he is, ever gets a chance to be an overlord, the first thing he'll do is whip up a throne made of skulls and congealed blood. He'll then proceed to stick it in a big-ass castle with spikes and doom and gloom that he'll dub The Realm of Unending Screams. They are a theatrical lot.
After two months of loafing around soaking up our wages, we have to earn our pay. The time was nigh- the Dark Lord was ready to set the ball of war a-rolling. Messengers came and went, the rumor mill turned, and orders trickled down; we were bound for the trenches of Ithilien- damned if I know the translation of that. Ithilien was a sort of No Man's Land in between Minas Morgul and Osgiliath, the conquest of which being our main objective. For years, there had been minor skirmishes in the area, march and counter march, a handful of casualties per side, but recently the Eye had made a special effort to secure the area. A month ago a couple of thousand uruks got dug in within sight of the river-city, preventing any easy sorties from the Gondorians. They've swapping arrows and hurtful implications about each other's lineage ever since. Those couple of thousand uruks are about to get reinforced by a mixed force of Easterners and Haradrim numbering about ten thousand, three thousand trolls divided into ten companies, approximately a skillion more uruks, and most devastatingly, us.
The previous Annalist, Wallace, caught an unknown plague marching through the Plateau of Gorgoroth. By the time our physic Pork Chop and Sapper got a diagnosis, he was a goner, though at least they managed to innoculate the rest of us. Per tradition, the Annalist's second was the Standard bearer, Erik, who held the honor for two days before being knifed to death by Southron over a game of cards. It was a massive snafu trying to rebuild the traditional structure within the Company, and being a Company man of good standing I got the job. We know that this is the fifth time in the history of the Black Company that a man went from ranker to Annalist without being Standard Bearer first. If I am slain in any upcoming battles, the new Standard Bearer, Papa Jack, will replace me. And when he dies, someone will step into his shoes, and so on, continuing our story long into the uncertain future. I am proud to hold the post for now, and sincerely hope that Papa Jack won't be writing a damn thing for a hell of a long time. Mind you, I still gotta be on the front line. Even at six hundred strong, which is doing pretty well compared to most of our history, we can't afford to do without a single trained soldier. So my duties as Annalist are sidejob- I'll be getting no special treatment.
Which is fine by me- like I said, esprit right up the corps.
I'm part of a specially trained squad. Our only job in battle is to accompany Sapper as he dishes out the pain and to make sure none of that pain is returned with interest. Not counting Sapper himself, there are six of us. I'm the corporal in charge of the squad- or am I an officer now? The Annalist is always considered an officer. I'll have to ask the Lieutenant later, 'cause if there's even the slightest chance that I can get ito the Officer's Club, I'm definitely going for it. Anyway, it's my job to coordinate the squad to do what it does best.
Blink, a master with his heavy crossbow, is our sharpshooter. I've seen that crossbow put a quarrel through the shield, the breastplate, the man himself, then out the back of the armor; it was practically a hand-held ballista. He has this nifty cranking mechanism that can reload it in less than twenty seconds, too. Sapper drafted the designs for it and had a weapon smith Haradrim cook it up. Blink even managed to get the transaction labelled as "for the common good of the Company" in his report to Quartermaster, which meant the money he bought it with was reimbursed from the pay chest. Lucky bastard.
There's the twins, Spike and Bop. In spite of our Company's name, they are the only two members of the Black Company who are actually black- the rest of us are varying shades of brown. According to the Annals we have, in our first hundred or so years, the Black Company was composed entirely of men like Spike and Bop. They weren't exactly identical; you could always tell which one is which, but there could be no mistaking that they were anything but twins. They were far away from their homeland, having migrated west until they hit the sea, than started north till they hit us. The little I could glean of their history suggests they pissed off someone powerful back home and found sanctuary with us. They were excellent swordsmen individually, but team them up and they were nigh unbeatable.
Reader- a giant of a man with great bulging muscles, like a troll that decided to shrink nine feet and bulk up a bit. His name, like a great many of the nicknames we have, is wholly ironic, as he is completely and proudly illiterate. Which means he thinks of the Annalist as a sorceror of stranger and more terrible power than Sapper. Once he dons his steel coat and helm, hoists his overly large shield, and hefts his nonregulation warhammer, he's practically a shiedwall unto himself. And none of that extra weight slows him down a bit.
Lastly, there's Saintly. He picked up his name after drunkenly burning down the natives' place of worship while on leave, bellowing out that the priest was a lying catamite. I never learned the details. Saintly was surefooted and quick-witted. If ever we needed a sentry taken out quickly and quietly, Saintly was our man. He is equally at home in a melee or stalking the enemy in the dead of night. He has an intuitive grasp of small unit tactics that made him worth his weight in gold to me.
Mind you, I was never quite sure why we were needed exactly. Wizards are notoriously difficult to kill- a quick scan through the Annals will bring up the sheer unfuckingkillability of such characters as Soulcatcher and the Limper, The Thing With Many Eyes and Varthlokkur, Nakar the Abomination, and many more besides. Sapper could likely survive anything the enemy threw at him. Still, orders are orders, and I can't deny that fights go a lot smoother when Sapper has a chance to concentrate on his work with having to dodge an arrow or sidestep a pike. We do our jobs well, in any case.
Today, we're not protecting our lovable little bundle of cranky sorcery. Orders, from the Tower itself- no wizards in the opening rounds except the Nazgul, who were these nine creepy-ass undead sorcerous kings. I think their name translates as "Ring Ghouls," so called 'cause they each got a special ring that binds them to the Dark Lord's service through all eternity. Note to self- if our employer offers us rings in my payment, politely but firmly refuse. They got voices like the grave and are always shrouded in cloaks, covering antique black armor. The uruks tell us that if one of the Nine ever removes his cloak, you'll see nothing underneath. Just a suit of armor moving by itself, and an eldritch crown floating in mid air. The only thing visible is where their right hand should be, there's a ring that shines with a horrible light. Or so the uruks say.
Anyway, enough rumor mongering. The Nazgul have told us to keep Sapper out of it entirely. The Eye doesn't want any minor wizards on his team revealed yet, so as to keep them as a tactical surprise for later battles. The Gondorians have been getting their asses raked by the Nine for years now, so there's no point in keeping them in reserve. Our job today is to act as line breakers for the main assault. This means, see, that the skillion or so uruks charge the barricades helter-skelter and die in droves. But as a direct result of them dying in droves, they'll either break through and start rampaging through the streets of Osgiliath or get stopped in their tracks, which is where we come in. My special squad gets to be thrown at any bit of the defense that starts getting too cocky.
Now that I think about it, I reckon that the uruks get a real raw deal. Their bosses pretty much see them as battle fodder, which has never been the stance of the Black Company. To the Captain, ain't none of us are expendable. Those poor freaks are going to suffer greatly in the coming weeks.
"There they go," Saintly remarks. The six of us are hanging back in the trench cooling our heels as a swarm of uruks are rushing the stone barricades. The Company is a quarter mile to the rear, in reserve, tasked with our job but on a larger scale. The front three ranks of the uruk force, if ranks they could be called, get cut down in a furious storm of arrows.
"Whoops! And there they went." Saintly's sense of humor is blacker than sin. Speaking of black, it turns out uruk blood has a nonstandard color scheme. Another reason to think of them as creeps.
"Note the positions," I tell the squad. "There ain't no archers on ground level, all those arrows came from the second and third stories of the stone buildings." They know their jobs a lot better than I do, but teaching their grandmas to suck eggs makes me feel useful.
Spike nods. "They know they'll lose the wall, but once our boys get into the city itself, them archers will give them hell."
"Also saw some movement on roofs," Blink adds. After a brief pause: "Hey, Haroun, would you mind if I...?"
"Go for it. We got nothing better to do."
Blink unslings his crossbow and places his chest up to the trench wall, resting his weapon on the churned dirt.
"Five silver pieces says he makes the shot," Bop pipes up. No one responds. "Offering ten to one here, now."
"Ten to one? Hell. You're on." Reader lays his hammer and shield down and peers out. The horde of uruks has got itself jammed up to the barricades, laying on a whole lotta ropes and ladders. Pretty soon it's going to be hand to hand. None of that matters now- we got a bet on, with stakes up to fifty silvers.
"Don't you miss, now," Bop tells Blink.
Blink grins. "I don't miss."
"Hey, Blink. I'll give you twenty five silver pieces if you miss."
Bop starts cussing Reader out, joking like. Spike punches Reader in the chest, pulling the punch, obviously. Even without the steel armor, punching Reader could break your hand. The rest of us chuckle a bit. It doesn't look like we'll be needed just yet. The uruks are on the wall now, duking it out with the Gondorian infantry. The Gondorians are all better armed and better trained, but they're outnumbered considerably, and some crazy-ass sorcery is at work in the uruks. Sapper could probably explain it better, but basically the head Nazgul, a charming sort of fella called the Witch-king, has some sort of spookiness up and running that drives them into berserker rages if they're close enough to him. They're still poorly armed and untrained, but that doesn't matter much when you outnumber the other team a trillion to one.
Blink takes a deep breath, lets half of it out, and looses. A deep, loud twong annouces the flight of his missile. We all follow his line of sight and see an archer on a roof, who was just about to loose an arrow himself, get knocked back and out of sight.
"Right on the trunk," Bop gushes. The Gondorian emblem is an uprooted silver tree with seven stars on a black field.
Blink matter-of-factly starts to wind up his crossbow again, while Bop does a low-key dance in place. Reader shrugs fatalistically. He had known that the odds of seeing that fifty silvers was slim, but if there had just been a gust of wind...
The uruks have the wall now, though they might well wish they hadn't. All the archers in this section can concentrate on them, and between the wall and the city itslf, there ain't no cover to speak of. The Gondorian infantry has withdrawn in good order to the streets, and the uruks can't seem to build up the momentum to charge them. The sorcery of the Witch-king is no replacement for good tactics. They mill about, getting cut down, attacking the footsoldiers in dribs and drabs and barely causing a dent in the defenses. The entire offense has came to a bloody halt.
"That's our cue, lads." We all grab our arms, haul ourselves out of the trenches, and sprint as best we can to the wall. We jostle our way through the uruk ranks, with Reader leading the way. Under the wall, near a ladder, surrounded by a bunch of snarling, crazed uruks...
"I saw that they're targeting the ones already on the wall, not the ones coming up the ladders and ropes," Saintly says. "We should be fine until we actually land on the parapet."
"Right, I say. "I'm going up first. I'll be trying to organize those poor dumb bastards upstairs into something resembling a fighting unit. Reader, you're next. Plant yourself right in front of the ladder and try to shield everyone else as they come up." Reader nodded grimly. "Once we're all on the parapet, you five get yourselves into a Turtle formation surrounding Blink. Blink, start picking off anyone who looks uppity." Blink nodded. Truly, the secret to successful leadership is delegation. "On my mark, we send the uruks into the meatgrinder and we use them as cover to get in close to the other team. Once in position, standard line breaking tactics. Everybody got that?"
They did. I scrambl up the ladder, pushing the ugly brutes out of the way so that we could go up first.
I scream and roar to convince myself and the uruks that I wasn't scared, then cuff and smack the uruks around trying to get them into some kind of shieldwall. It could never be a proper shieldwall, mind- their shields were more like bucklers. Useful in hand to hand, in their own way, but unsuited to protection from missiles or spear walls. I get them kneeling and overlapping their shields, then I get them to advance slowly and cautiously to make room for more uruks to come up onto the wall and I make them join in too. The archers can't inflict enough damage fast enough to stem the tide, and the foot soldiers don't dare leave their defenses to engage us.
I check back toward my squad- they're fine, with their back to the defensive wall, kneeling down with their wide shields up. Blink can't see past his brothers' shields, but I hear Saintly calling out to Blink- "Big guy without a shield, third rank, eighth file from the left!" Twong! "Hit! Pair of bowmen, far right flank, on the roof!"
Arrows whistle around me, but none have my name on them. If I was in charge on the other team, I'd be screaming at my bowmen to take out the guy who's in charge. Is that what the Gondorian across the way is doing? If it was, how am I still alive?
Does it matter? They miss. That's all I care about.
When I finally let the uruks off the leash, they howl like the damned and rush at the Gondorian line. They collide with a metallic clash that leaves my ears ringing, and by the time I rejoin my brothers to add my shield to theirs, the other team has buckled and started to withdraw. More uruks stream unopposed up the ladders and join in the savagery. You can count this tide turned in my book.
We had all studied maps of the city. It's set up so that the great river Anduin splits the city in two halves, and there's been enough skirmishing between Mordor and Gondor over the last century to have functionally ruined the eastern half. All of the major fortifications in the city lie on the river banks. The way we figure, the only thing standing between our boys and the river are those damn archers in the buildings. I send Saintly back to the trenches to tell them that our section of wall is breached and to start bringing in the trolls. Trolls can shrug off sheaves of arrors at a time, and they regard stone buildings as challenges. Don't stand on ceremony, fellas.
We could well have waded into the close quarters melee down there on the ground, but that would be really, really stupid of us. We weren't going to change the swing of battle by ourselves, and we might get hurt. Where's the profit in that? We were told to break the line if the uruks got stuck, and hey, look! It's a broken line.
We'll get paid whether we bleed or not. By all means, then, let's avoid the bleeding.
Our forces outdid themselves. As my squad was trudging back to the trenches and into the mess hall, the Nazgul sprang into action, hitting the other team with a nifty little fear spell that drove even the bravest of them into hysterics. The Lieutenant managed to sneak a hundred of our best men through the confused enemy lines, and outflanked two whole companies of fleeing Gondorian infantry, killing them by the score. They remained in position to roust any pockets of resistance before they could solidify.
We didn't just capture the eastern half of Osgiliath, we drove the from the city wholesale. Even as I'm writing this, trolls are starting to fortify the western edges of Osgiliath, just as Gondorians had done for us.
The Black Company got ten brothers lightly wounded. That's all. Pork Chop'll have them all back on their feet within the month.
Here's to hoping that the Lidless Eye gives us a hefty bonus for this.
I spoke too soon. A surprise Gondorian counterattack drove us back to the eastern side of the Anduin. They didn't have the momentum nor the numbers to knock us back to the trenches of Ithilien, but they managed to destroy the bridges that span the river. Getting at them at all will be a chore, let alone fighting through their soon to be constructed defenses.
Ah, hell with 'em. We still earned that bonus.
A squad of Company men was trapped on the other side of the river when the Gondorians struck. By all accounts, our brothers died hard, making the other team paying a high price for their victory. The details, as always, will be written down in the Book of the Slain as well, but I will here personally mourn our first brothers lost in this war:
Brother Dollface, we here record your passing. You die a soldier of the Black Company, and we on earth await reunion with you when our own time comes.
Brother Ahmed, we here record your passing. You die a soldier of the Black Company, and we on earth await reunion with you when our own time comes.
Brother Twink, we here record your passing. You die a soldier of the Black Company, and we on earth await reunion with you when our own time comes.
Brother Wazzer, we here record your passing. You die a soldier of the Black Company, and we on earth await reunion with you when our own time comes.
Brother Feisal, we here record your passing. You die a soldier of the Black Company, and we on earth await reunion with you when our own time comes.
May a brother of my Company note my own passing in this ancient way when I am slain myself.
I take it seriously, right?