"Bone Candy: A Black Company Story" is the third of five intercalary short stories of the Black Company series written by Glen Cook. It was published in the 2014 anthology Shattered Shields edited by Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt.
|“||When is the battlefield not a battlefield?||”|
The Dark Horse tavern in the city of Aloe is packed. Markeb Zhorab's wife and sister are helping him serve the crowd, and some of the unsavory customers are hoping that his daughter will make an appearance as well. Four members of the Black Company have a tonk game going: Croaker the physician, Silent the wizard, Otto the sergeant, and Corey a new local recruit. Although Croaker keeps winning, he is troubled by a recurring nightmare he's had the past three nights in a row.
Corey cryptically asks "when is the battlefield not a battlefield?" When pressed, he states that One-Eye asked him that last time they spoke. The men then wonder aloud why One-Eye, Goblin, and the Third, all three wizards of the Company like Silent, are not present with them. They suspect it cannot be for anything good. Zhorab delivers another pitcher, quickly warns them with the code-word "flies", and hustles off. He is referring to Shor Chodroze, a man they have dubbed "Two Dead", who has arrived and is approaching the card game. Two Dead is a sorcerer himself, but much more powerful than any of the Company wizards. His reputation is grim and Croaker consistently refers to him as looking like a spider. A colonel with a large facial scar, Two Dead reports directly to Whisper, one of the new Taken who has little love for the Black Company. The first time this man appeared in Aloe, One-Eye and Goblin disappeared. Oddly, Two Dead seems rather spooked, and also, his ever-present bodyguard Buzz is not with him this time.
|“||Two Dead... all bluster and self-regard... The left side of his face featured a lightning bolt of bruise-colored scar tissue, forehead to chin, but his eye survived. I suspected a glancing upward thrust from an infantry pole arm.||”|
Two Dead demands that Croaker and Silent follow him. Croaker assumes that someone must need stitching up. Outside the bar, Silent and Croaker note the weather has taken a strange turn, but Two Dead demands they keep up. They now meet up with the colonel's bodyguard, Tesch, the man the Company calls Buzzard Neck (often just "Buzz" for short). He is a swift, intelligent, gigantic man with an oversize Adam's apple. He is wearing full body armor but Croaker can tell he is suffering intense stomach troubles. The men of the Black Company respect Buzz as much as they distrust Two Dead. The colonel takes them a third of a mile through Aloe, stopping at a bizarre animal with brown fur in poor health.
The strange animal is the cause of Two Dead's unease. He states there had been two others, which fled when he first saw them, but the injured one smells of sorcery. Silent agrees, and this could mean trouble. An odd moment passes during which both Two Dead and Silent are confident that sorcery is at work, but nothing noticeable to Croaker occurs. He examines the animal, never having seen such a creature before; it appears comatose or hibernating. He and Silent load it onto Buzz's gigantic kite shield and move it downhill to Croaker's clinic for a closer look. This whole time, Buzz's health is declining, and he seems barely able to keep his bowels in order.
|“||The Old Man was all fired-up curious. "It's supernatural, right? What kind? Where from? Was it summoned? Is it invasive? Somebody talk to me." He was sure that Two Dead was to blame.||”|
At the clinic, the Captain and Otto are present, Two Dead remains quiet, and Buzz has left to finally haunt a latrine. On closer inspection, Croaker observes the animal looks more like a twisted baboon. It has crocodile-teeth, snakelike eyes, and clawed feet. It stinks terribly. Even the Captain is overtly curious, uncharacteristically pestering Croaker with a string of questions. Two Dead assures them all that he knows nothing about it. Croaker tells his companions they should quickly go capture the other two animals that Two Dead had seen. The cryptic question "when is the battlefield not a battlefield?" comes to mind, and he wonders if this is some sort of Rebel plot. The Black Company had very recently crushed Cannon Shear, but senior Rebels still want Aloe back because they think it might contain the Port of Shadows.
Croaker reveals that he has read the Rebel legends and histories, containing stories unknown to the natives of Aloe. The Port of Shadows references a mysterious gateway through which the Dominator could escape his tomb-like prison. Could this critter be a tool of the Resurrectionists among the remaining Rebel leadership? The Captain solicits advice first from Silent, who does not offer an opinion, and next from Two Dead, who advises them to keep it alive but cold until one of the healthy ones is captured. The Captain might not be sharing something with Croaker, but none of the Company men trust Two Dead at all.
|“||The bugs started trying to murder one another with ridiculous bear-traps jaws.||”|
Strange beetles begin pouring out of the injured beast. The men, even Two Dead, are confused, and scramble to contain the bugs. The beast literally deflates as an onslaught of beetles pours forth. Otto, who bolted away a moment earlier, now returns with a tin biscuit box from the commissary, and they seal the horrible carcass within it. But Two Dead is bitten and stung on his hands in the process. He is immediately exhibiting extreme symptoms, so Croaker tends to him. Meanwhile, the Captain is charging around, crushing the errant bugs and grubs that were not sealed into the tin, which now sounds like "a metal roof in a hailstorm" as more and more beetles exit the carcass within.
Activity in the clinic becomes increasingly hectic and unpredictable. Silent tells Croaker that one of the bugs laid eggs in Two Dead's hand, so the physician expertly fishes them out. Otto enters the clinic with the Third, the apprentice of the missing wizards One-Eye and Goblin, by the scruff of the neck. He was caught stealing foodstuffs for himself and One-Eye, and the Captain demands answers. Buzz stumbles in, looking even worse than before despite a visit to the latrine. And, outside, there is increasing clamor as the Captain's orders to capture the other two animals are relayed.
|“||I caught a vague hint of distant wind chimes. That rattled me. It tied into my recurrent nightmare somehow.||”|
The Captain tells Croaker to prioritize Two Dead's health above all else... they don't want to give his boss Whisper any more excuses to put blame on the Black Company. The Captain leaves with the Third. Two Dead tells Croaker to help his bodyguard Buzz, so the physician loads up the big man with fluids. It is now clear that Two Dead is not involved with the magic animals and the dangerous beetles within them, but his superior, Whisper, is a prime suspect. Croaker thinks he hears "distant wind chimes", which is unsettling because somehow this recalls the recurring nightmare he's been suffering. He goes to get some much needed rest.
|“||I fit puzzle pieces while I worked, hoping I was fooling myself, but afraid I was looking chaos in the crimson, googly eye.||”|
The Captain awakens Croaker. He reports that the men have captured and incinerated the other two creatures. But Two Dead looks to be in terrible shape. He is burning up and completely unresponsive, so Croaker orders him to be packed with snow. When Croaker asks, the Captain does not disclose what he learned from the Third, but whatever One-Eye and Goblin are doing, the Captain might actually approve. The physician observes that there were more eggs under Two Dead's skin, so he goes to remove them as the Captain hauls in snow. Croaker applies a tourniquet to contain the apparent blood poisoning, but amputation could be necessary if his condition worsens. Buzz is elsewhere, suffering from dangerous diarrhea, with Corey babysitting him.
|“||I have eaten a lot of bone candy with the Company.||”|
Otto and Hagop haul in more snow. The Captain returns from a quick nap accompanied by the Third who is in shackles, for his thievery. The Third will awaken Two Dead, so that Croaker can ask him if amputation is an option. The Third warns Croaker that the man could be hysterical with the pain of his arm when he awakens, as Silent seems to have put him in a healing coma. But once awakened, he soldiers through it, and confirms that yes, amputation is permissible if it is the only thing that will save his life. The Captain meanwhile tries to casually question the colonel while the man is on Croaker's painkillers. The one potentially helpful bit of information is unheard by the physician, and the Captain hustles away. Croaker prepares for the likely amputation, insisting that the Third be present to help with whatever sorcery he can contribute.
|“||The Lady loves the chaos. While her underlings are backstabbing and undercutting each other they are too busy to move on her. She can focus on keeping her husband underground.||”|
With One-Eye still missing and his medical sorcery unavailable, Croaker realizes he must amputate Two Dead's arm. The colonel, unable to apply his own sorcery to assist on account of the pain, must rely on the Third's inexperienced wizardry and Croaker's surgery. He asks to be made unconscious. Before going under, he blusters that his bodyguard Buzz will avenge him if the Company kills him. As Croaker performs the operation, the Third mentions that Goblin and One-Eye disappeared only to get the full story about both Two Dead and Buzz. Apparently, Goblin recognized Buzz from the Battle of Charm. Croaker thinks to himself that all the drama and politics of the Lady's Empire are encouraged by the Lady herself, so while her subjects are distracted, she can ensure that her husband the Dominator remains trapped.
The Captain again awakens Croaker from his next nap. The physician recalls yet another dream featuring the Lady and a second, mysterious person who emits a "wind-chime tinkle" sound. But now he wonders if it is magical outreach from the Lady instead of a simple dream. Buzz is carried into the clinic, stinking horribly of excrement. Corey, exhausted, reports that every liquid he poured into the man came right out the bottom. Croaker determines that the man is suffering from poke plant poisoning. But someone must have made the massive man unconscious and literally poured the poke plant juice down his throat.
|“||...the hours fat with events boasting an almost dreamlike lack of dynamic structure.||”|
The Captain and Croaker discuss the possibility that the nightmares are from the Lady, trying to contact him directly. It has only been a single day since Two Dead retrieved Croaker and Silent from the Dark Horse. Otto enters the clinic, dragging yet another Company wizard: this time, it is Goblin. The little man explains that he went into hiding and accessed the demon realms to get the truth about Two Dead and Buzz, as soon as they first arrived. Back at Charm, Goblin fought Buzz in person... Buzz, now calling himself "Tesch", had been a Rebel known as "Essentially Capable Shiiraki, the Spellsmith". Like a number of Rebel survivors, he faked his death and switched sides. Goblin also reveals that he was contacted by the Lady. He confirms that Croaker's nightmares were indeed the Lady trying to do outreach. But each time she tried, Croaker was drunk or asleep.
Goblin states that Whisper sent her long-time favorite, Two Dead, to destroy the Port of Shadows if it could be found. But this was a setup. She also secretly tasked Two Dead's bodyguard, Buzz, to assassinate Two Dead and then frame the Black Company for it. Buzz would then take over, not destroy, the Port of Shadows. Croaker is disgusted at Whisper's vindictiveness. Goblin further explains that One-Eye left him as soon as Buzz summoned the infested chinkami. The creatures are indeed supernatural entities ultimately sent by Whisper.
The Captain asks what the consequences would be for the Company if Two Dead and Buzz die of their afflictions. Goblin is confident that Whisper will somehow pin the blame on them. Croaker asks the opposite question: what if both men are saved? This would foil Whisper and improve their position with the Lady. Persuaded, the Captain orders Goblin to help Croaker however he can, and has Otto and his men follow the Third to One-Eye's hiding place.
|“||A dark-haired, to-die-for beautiful brunette teen looked out at us. She smiled a smile that lighted up the universe.||”|
Otto returns with One-Eye, who begins explaining his absence as well. He advises Croaker to focus on healing Two Dead. As for Buzz, it was One-Eye who fed him the poke juice. One-Eye was trying to neutralize a different, more subtle poison, something called firenz, that Buzz had consumed beforehand. The black wizard digs up the antidote for the firenz, but does not confess to being the poisoner. Then, they all hear the wind chimes sound that has been haunting Croaker for the past several days. The Lady appears in a vision to all of them, looking at One-Eye for a moment, then winking and making an air-kiss at Croaker. A second, unseen person is detectable, someone associated with the wind chimes sound, but the vision vanishes. One-Eye, now quite motivated, hustles around too help the sick men. Croaker steps out for some fresh air. It has not been 30 hours since Two Dead grabbed him at the tavern.
Chatting with the Captain, Croaker muses about the phrase "when is the battlefield not a battlefield?" that has come up repeatedly. If Two Dead and Buzz survive, the Company will score a major victory without swinging a single sword. They will even try to bring both wizards over to the Company. Buzz is intelligent and incredibly strong, and Two Dead is "almost Taken caliber" as a sorcerer. The Captain is proud of him, even putting his hand on the physician's shoulder: only the third or fourth time the man has ever made physical contact with him over the years. Croaker now surmises that the Captain is perhaps in league with the Lady, and might have slipped Buzz the firenz. Hopeful, Croaker returns to use his healing arts to win the Company "a brace of new magicians".