"Shaggy Dog Bridge: A Black Company Story" is the fourth of five intercalary short stories of the Black Company series written by Glen Cook. It was published in the 2013 anthology Fearsome Journeys: The new Solaris Book of Fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan.
The Annalist for the events is Croaker, who records the details of his harrowing encounters with Blind Emon, the last of the forgotten Taken in the service of a monster known only as the Master, all while the Company is on the run from The Lady's forces.
The Black Company has been fleeing from The Lady's Imperial forces led by the general Whisper. They have been pressed against the west cliff of the Rip, a massive geological cavity in the earth about 700 miles long and often more than a thousand feet deep.
Croaker has covertly joined a reconnaissance team led by Elmo which includes Rusty, Robin, Whittle, Zeb the archer, and the wizard One-Eye. They are checking out the territory ahead of the main encampment of the Company.
As the recon team moves along the Rip, One-Eye realizes that a densely forested area is actually a magical illusion. About 70% of the apparently 500-year-old oak and chestnut trees are not real. They are a very convincing but very old glamour that was created to conceal a road and a centuries-old bridge over the Rip. The bridge remains standing because it is maintained by very strong sorcery. Whittle volunteers to cross first, and he does so safely. He is followed by the rest of the recon team, and they spend the night protected from the rain inside a shack at the other end of the bridge.
The next morning, Elmo dispatches three men to report to the main Company camp. The rest of the group advances deeper into the territory on the other side of the bridge, along a road, which, like the bridge itself, is hidden from view by ancient illusions. They encounter deadwood which must be removed from the road for the main body of the Company. Suddenly, Croaker hears terrible, psychic screaming, and he warns the men to scatter and hide. Overhead, they observe what they believe to be a brand new member of The Lady's Taken. Croaker detects it is a woman. She is emitting horrible sensations of hatred, pain, and grief which disturb him immensely. She passes them, permanently scattering crows that had been following them, but apparently does not actually notice the men. Startled, they work on clearing the road until nightfall.
The following day, riders from the main body report that the entire Company is on the march. Elmo assigns the riders to take over clearing the road, and the recon group continues into uncharted territory. That night, the psychic screams of the new Taken woman are audible again to Croaker as she passes by unseen, disrupting his sleep.
Next morning, they find another bridge and smell smoke from a settlement. Whittle again volunteers to go first, but Elmo orders One-Eye to check it out. He returns to report a sizeable town, a farming community, complete with a river dammed in three places, a few mills, a blockhouse, and an enclosed bailey. Strangely, the inhabitants are not working, but instead are keeping close watch over the sky.
Croaker is keeping tabs on the young local men who were sent as watchguards into the blockhouse that night. They speak a completely alien tongue. Whittle startles Croaker when he arrives to relieve him. Without warning, the new Taken woman appears fifty feet overhead, the third time she has been detected by Croaker. Whittle and Croaker observe that she is, unexpectedly, not using a flying carpet like the Taken normally utilize for flight, but rather is surrounded a mass of floating cloth with petals outstretched in many directions. One-Eye joins them, frightened. The town is then rocked by flashing lightning spells, the roaring of unseen magic, and the panic of the inhabitants. Elmo also arrives; Whittle uses their sign-language to report to the sergeant that they are uncertain what is happening. Confused and worried, the four Company men have a restless night.
In the morning, Elmo observes that there are at least a thousand inhabitants, perhaps even double. There seems to be a woman for every man, so it is not a military installation. Zeb sees the new Taken now, too, and is equally unsettled. In the sunlight they observe that the cloth surrounding the woman is a deep cardinal red. She settles into a normal size and lands in the bailey, but soon rises out, her petals of magic fabric blossoming outward again. She joins a column of mules headed toward the blockhouse being watched by the Company brothers. Elmo orders them to rush back and warn the main body. Croaker, not belonging with the recon group in the first place, is out of shape and struggles to keep up.
As Croaker flees, he is picked up by Snapper's patrol. His mind once again passively absorbs the mental thoughts of the new mysterious Taken woman. This is possible because he was subjected to The Lady's Eye on more than one occasion several years prior. The Eye carved something like telepathic inroads to his mind. The woman's thoughts disturb him, but he is undetected and gains some intelligence as her story leaks over. He finally rejoins the haggard main body of the Company, and many of the men are still slowly trickling across the bridge over the Rip which One-Eye discovered earlier. For some reason, the entire Company is attempting to disguise itself amid the surroundings, including glamours created by the wizards. The Lieutenant supplies no explanation for this, as is very displeased that Croaker snuck into the recon group. He tasks Croaker to help all the men with their usual problems of ticks, blisters, and the like, and when finished, to report to him.
When Croaker wraps up his duties as physician, he reports to the Lieutenant. The Company leader does not berate Croaker as he expected. Instead, the Lieutenant updates him with his own findings. While the recon group went east on the hidden road, the Lieutenant explored the westerly route. Eight miles out, he discovered a ruined castle, uglier even than the infamous Black Castle they had helped destroy in Juniper. Surrounded by both human and animal bones, he believes it dates back to the Domination. The destitute locals he found there spoke an ancient language, and only with the help of the two wizards Goblin and Silent was the Lieutenant able to communicate with them. He learned that they are servants to the lord of the castle, a powerful sorcerer whose title translates roughly to "the Master". Gruesomely, they are also his "livestock in lean times"... which explains the human bones.
The Master, like other sorcerers at his extreme level of power, had made himself immortal. However, he is such a cannibalistic, absurdly obese glutton that the locals do not consider him human. The Lieutenant also states that the mysterious flying woman is called Blind Emon. Despite her power, she is literally blind. Correcting Croaker, he insists this tortured person is not a Taken. But Croaker argues that she was indeed Taken, just by the Master... and not the usual suspects (the Dominator or the Lady). The rest of the Lieutenant's findings explain and corroborate the details that have already mentally leaked over to Croaker. Unconcerned with arguing about what defines a "Taken", Lieutenant orders them all to hunker down.
As the mule train and Blind Emon pass nearby, Croaker is subjected to 15 minutes of the most intense mental suffering thus far. This time he actually experiences the memories of her Taking, centuries ago, at the hands of the Master. Additional details come through: the Master was indeed active before the Domination, and he had more of his own Taken, like Emon, back then. And: the Master and the Dominator actually clashed. At the cost of his humanity, and all his other Taken except for Emon, the Master actually repulsed his enemy.
Emon was once a promising, young, and beautiful mage who was skilled at uncovering ancient mysteries. But she discovered something that was mostly forgotten and truly evil (the Master, or possibly something related to him). Getting blinded was the first of many atrocities she subsequently suffered at the Master's hands.
Deeply distracted by Blind Emon's emotional, telepathic output, Croaker carelessly steps outside the bounds of the Company's magic camouflage. A stunned muleteer sees him, and alerts Emon. Croaker flees back behind the glamour, but Emon knows an outsider is present somewhere. She cannot see him, but emits a psychic plea for the outsider to kill her, to put her out of her misery, with such energy that it agonizes everyone, even the mules. Croaker, the most sensitive of all, passes out from the pain and vomits.
Croaker awakens with a massive headache. He is being examined by his apprentices, and one of them, Joro, reports that there is no permanent damage. Elmo informs him that Blind Emon freaked out, gave up searching, and departed, leaving the Company alone. But, Croaker knows she did not give up and leave on her own accord. Because of his mental link, he knows that she was mentally called away by the Master. The Company took some local prisoners and seized some animals and cargo from the mule train. Among the captured loads is a keg of mysterious material, something like copper beads, with uncertain purpose. Although he is normally curious, this time Croaker is in too much pain to investigate the substance to learn more.
Soon, the Company is shocked by the sounds of intense battlefield sorcery nearby. Blind Emon seems to be fighting Whisper and her imperials who were pursuing the Company. Croaker and some others including Rusty and Whittle climb to a vantage point and confirm this. Emon's turbulent storm of cardinal-colored fabric tendrils are now spread much wider than seen before. She hovers above the ruins of the Master's castle, and is being circled by three of the Lady's Taken on their flying carpets. A fourth Taken, having been blasted from the sky, is injured but alive, on the ground, fleeing from a destroyed carpet. Croaker is able to spot Whisper in the air.
In a troubling development, Croaker realizes he has now been mentally detected by both Whisper and Blind Emon. He senses that Whisper thinks this fight with Blind Emon was planned by the Company beforehand (this is false: the Lieutenant orchestrated it on the fly). Blind Emon, her power now extended by her proximity to the Master, is probing his memories in a general sense. Croaker learns from her that she and the Master had been aware of the Takens' approach, and had been preparing to fight the Taken for weeks. Emon suddenly launches one of those mysterious kegs out of the castle, and redirects it at Whisper in midair. It explodes with such violence that the Company brothers actually pity their enemy Whisper. She survives a horrible crash landing, her carpet destroyed as well. Emon launches yet another keg, and this one impacts another Taken directly. But this keg does not explode, and the unidentified Taken is left holding on to the carpet precariously with one hand. Elmo orders everyone to flee, and Croaker misses the rest of the combat.
Croaker and the Company are now intermingling with fleeing locals; everyone is heading for the bridge, trying to escape the magic duel between Emon and the Taken. All this time, they were observed by a lone crow. While Croaker relieves himself in the woods, the crow lands nearby, emits a glow, and the face of The Lady appears. He is terrified, but when she asks him to return to her service, he is genuinely tempted despite the foolishness of the idea. He becomes aware she is simultaneously examining his memories for the impressions left behind by Emon. Before he can answer, the vision departs without warning.
The Lieutenant assigns Elmo and his same recon team the unenviable task of detonating the bridge over the Rip. They will use the explosive kegs they have seized from the mule train. To help them, he adds Goblin to the group. The men struggle to rig the kegs under the bridge, suffering several dangerous mishaps and inconveniences, but escaping genuine harm.
Blind Emon approaches again, and mentally communicates with Croaker, this time much more clearly. The Taken have all been badly hurt, but they severed the connection between Emon and the Master. Emon is free, for now, but does not expect to live another day. She wants blood, and reveals a way to rework the keg bombs (her own inventions) so they will explode more destructively. Croaker trusts her, overrules Company dissent, and joins them under the bridge in making the necessary changes.
Imperials arrive, and start crossing the bridge while Croaker and the others silently continue rigging the bombs underneath it. They overhear the enemy mention that two of the Taken might have died in the fight against Emon. Croaker also learns that Whisper has put a bounty on him specifically. They are almost exposed when some Imperials urinate off the bridge into the wind, unwittingly splashing the enemy beneath them. One-Eye and Whittle are barely able to contain their rage, blaming Croaker for the humiliation.
By nightfall, all the Company saboteurs escape from underneath the bridge with the aid of the darkness and a magic glamour. Blind Emon is now a full-fledged ally, and is physically present next to Croaker as they observe the Imperials crossing the bridge. They can overhear The Lady berating her men through her crow, threatening to come out in person to take charge. Without warning, The Lady's crow indicates she can "smell" the enemy nearby. The Imperials charge out.
Croaker orders his Company brothers to flee, and they do so without hesitation. Blind Emon springs into action, terrifying the oncoming Imperials and strangling some of them with her tentacle-like enchanted fabric. Croaker goes to help her, alone, but she mentally tells him to get down, and stay down, or he will die. She flies out over the Rip, and with her cloth petals, triggers the explosive kegs under the bridge to detonate. The bridge flings upward in the ensuing explosions, and hundreds of Imperials fall to their deaths. Emon uses the billowing smoke to disappear, never to be seen by Croaker again, and does not even sending a single farewell.
Once the smoke clears, to Croaker's utter surprise, the bridge looks relatively untouched despite the epic blast. The magic spells used in its construction and maintenance have brought it back to its original shape, making it seemingly invulnerable. Imperials from the other side are almost immediately checking the bridge by torchlight, and could be upon him very soon. Croaker now flees as well, at the tail end of a long march of Company brothers, once again on the run from The Lady's forces.