"Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company" is the first of five intercalary short stories of the Black Company series written by Glen Cook. It was published in the 2010 anthology Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders.
The Annalist for the events is Croaker, who records the details of his band of wisecracking cutthroats after they experience peace for the first time since the epic Battle of Charm. They have been garrisoned in a civilized city, but the arrival of their most hated rival with a cryptic mission from their empress to kidnap a mysterious woman promises intrigue and danger.
Many of the mainstays of the Black Company (Croaker, One-Eye, Elmo, Otto, and Pawnbroker) are gambling in one of their countless games of tonk. They are in a bar called the Dark Horse, in the city of Aloe, where they have been garrisoned almost three months. The owner, Markeb Zhorab, is wary of his patrons, especially as Goblin, seated nearby, continually tries to pick a fight with One-Eye. But they are his best-paying customers.
One-Eye actually wins a hand: an exceedingly rare event. Chattering about local prostitutes, they are surprised by the local religious custom in which a woman keeps her body shaved of all hair (below the neckline) after the first time she has sex. Croaker pulls a prank on One-Eye, but they are interrupted by the Lieutenant. The second-in-command is looking for Kingpin, who failed to report to the Company kitchen. Elmo, a sergeant, offers to help with King, even though King isn't in his platoon. They soon take their cards outside to the outside seating.
One-Eye has started using his wizard's powers to cheat at the card game. But Croaker is too distracted to notice, busy musing that all 640 men of the Company have not seen any violence in exactly 87 days. Prior to their arrival in Aloe, they had been shadowing The Lady's best general, Whisper, continually fighting the Rebel in one hotspot after another. One-Eye mocks Croaker that The Lady is giving him preferential treatment by stationing the Company here. A young man named Corey interrupts, pointing out a beautiful young woman with short red hair passing in the street.
The men are stunned by her beauty, and she is startled by their attention. One-Eye knows from her hairstyle that she is a temple girl, a holy prostitute of the cult of Occupoa, which is nearby. Croaker guesses that no one has bothered the Company since their arrival because they many of them are spending their money with little restraint. They realize that the wizard Silent, stranger these days than normal, had disappeared without anyone noticing.
Hagop delivers an message from the Captain, calling for Elmo, Croaker, Goblin, and One-Eye, ending the game. As they walk, Hagop privately hands Croaker a small piece of parchment. Its contents bring him to a dead stop.
The group continues into the Company headquarters, a building of brown adobe. They are part of a stream of officers and sergeants… clearly the Captain has important news. They all see a flying carpet parked near the building, which is an indication that one of The Lady's dreadful enforcers, a Taken, is present. Croaker immediately recognizes it as belonging to the Limper, who is The Lady's most hated and dangerous general. Worse, the Limper has a bitter, personal enmity against Croaker. Hagop explains that he actually stole the parchment from the interior of the carpet on a whim. They hustle away to avoid detection.
In the mess hall, the Company brothers are hoping that the Limper has arrived with their payroll. Even though their pay is from a tax levied on Aloe. Many of them have married local women and some even have step-children, so they are wary of a major assignment. The Captain walks up and announces they must find a dangerous Rebel captain by the name of Tides Elba (pronounced "Teadace Elba"). They could be leaving Aloe soon, so they should prepare accordingly. The reeking Limper also takes center stage, but says nothing, simply staring at the men from behind his brown leather mask.
The Captain dismisses everyone, but sends the wizards to accompany the Limper somewhere, and orders Croaker to follow him personally. In his office, the Captain reveals The Lady wants to neutralize Tides Elba before she could become a major rallying cry for the Rebel, or worse, in case she is the prophesied reincarnation of the White Rose. The only thing they know for certain is that "Tides Elba" is not her true name. The Lady believes Tides Elba was born in Aloe and is present there frequently. Since Croaker has spent much of his personal time over the past few weeks digging into the history of Aloe, the Captain needs his insights, and quickly. If they don't handle the matter themselves, the Limper will discredit, abuse, and endanger the Black Company to find Tides Elba, take all the credit, and improve his lot with The Lady.
Croaker calls a special meeting with Elmo, Hagop, and the wizards. Corey wants to know what's going on, but they send him out front to play cards. Discreetly, they pass around the parchment Hagop stole. It is written in TelleKurre, so only Croaker can translate it. It is a private order from the Lady to the Limper to capture Tides Elba, alive and unharmed. There is no mention that she is a dangerous Rebel captain: the Limper lied to them all. Most surprisingly, he wrote a foul insult directed at The Lady on his personal copy of the order. They grow frightened as they realize the Limper might notice it is missing, so Hagop and Croaker, who were seen near the Limper's carpet, will need to have their memories deeply suppressed by One-Eye's magic.
Before his memory is suppressed, Croaker pays the tavern-keeper Markeb Zhorab to have an exact copy of the parchment professionally made. He hopes Zhorab had copies privately made for himself. To downplay suspicion, Croaker and Elmo give the pretense that this is all part of a practical joke on Goblin. Then, Croaker goes to have his memory suppressed.
Having forgotten all the recent developments about the Limper's stolen parchment and Tides Elba, Croaker can shed no light on the general confusion among the bulk of the other men. Croaker, Goblin, Elmo, and One-Eye are part of the team which travels to the civil records building of the city. (Aloe is a prosperous republic which can afford to maintain such a facility.) But it is disorganized, and very few men can read the language, so the Company has its work cut out for them. Suddenly, Silent makes his first appearance, and announces via his hand-signing language that he knows the identity of Tides Elba: she is the beautiful redhead whom Corey spotted on the street.
Croaker and Elmo are ready to immediately capture the young woman and turn her over to the Limper, no questions asked. But an argument, carried out in the hand-sign language, breaks out, since One-Eye wants to use the opportunity to somehow con their hated enemy, the Limper. Silent sides with Croaker and Elmo. Later, the Captain decides they should kidnap the girl and leave out any intrigue that could enrage the Limper. However, Goblin and One-Eye are still dedicated to somehow embarrassing the Limper. They respect his raw power but have nothing for disdain for the Taken's ageless stupidity.
In a private meeting, Croaker is asked directly by the Captain if he had tampered with the Limper's carpet. The Limper is present. Frightened, but believing he is innocent because his memory has genuinely been suppressed, Croaker explains he did nothing of the sort. The Limper, again perfectly silent, seems to believe him. The annalist departs for the Dark Horse.
The Company does not make a move to kidnap Tides Elba as planned. This is because the wizards One-Eye and Goblin are taken somewhere by the Limper, and Silent disappears to keep eyes on their young target. Without all three wizards present to assist, Elmo, Candy, and the Lieutenant all refuse to sanction the operation.
At the public records building, only four Company men have arrived who can read the Aloen language. One is the Third, the overweight, ugly, and unmotivated wizard apprentice of both One-Eye and Goblin. The Third notifies Croaker that One-Eye will be part of a team which will kidnap Tides Elba from the Temple of Occupoa this very night, unsanctioned, so One-Eye can accomplish some greedy con. With the Third, Croaker catches up with One-Eye, Goblin, and two of the other men who can read the local language: Cornello Crat and Ladora Ans. The Third leaves, not caring about the predicament. But Croaker angrily dissuades the others from their plan to hit the Temple this night with One-Eye. He turns Goblin, then Crat and Ans. One-Eye, now isolated, cannot go alone, but replies bitterly to Croaker. Elmo and Silent arrive and escort One-Eye out.
Croaker, Goblin, Silent, Elmo, Tuco, and Reams are finally ready to capture their target. So One-Eye doesn't get greedy, he and his apprentice the Third are sent away on a wild goose chase to someplace called Utbank parish. As they march toward the Temple of Occupoa, Croaker has misgivings about how the the locals will react to their violation of a temple and abduction of a young woman. Elmo reminds him that his job as physician is to sew up any Company brother who gets injured: the Captain will deal with the broader consequences. Goblin does not remember being with the Limper, and it seems likely that his own memory of the last two days was suppressed by their enemy.
The Temple of Occupoa is a huge, domed, concrete beehive structure over eighty feet high. It looms over tenements, a wonder of engineering largely ignored by the locals. Checking for booby traps, they find only a sleeping old man inside who is supposed to be guarding a poor box. Goblin uses a spell to make the man sleep even deeper. Inside the shabby temple, they realize this is not a stronghold of underground Rebels. They only find 16 women of various ages eating in a dining hall. Ignoring their startled questions, Silent points out Tides Elba from among a group of lookalikes.
The young woman starts to emit a powerful aura that is making the Company men deeply attracted to her and question their mission. Silent uses his own sorcery to defeat or suppress her magic. With help from Tuco and Reams, he restrains her. The others become aware of her affect on them, and any doubts they had about her being The Lady's target are dispelled. They head out.
Near the entrance, Elmo has broken the arm of a local boy who was about to steal from the poor box. Croaker tends to him and then they head for the Company compound. Outside, Aloens look on in confusion. Croaker swears he can hear the trademark scraping sound made by the Limper coming from within the Temple they have just left. They drop off Tides Elba at the Black Company's compound, and head to Zhorab's bar for a celebratory beer. Goblin states that Croaker could not have truly heard the Limper, because the Taken was, in reality, returning from Utbank parish with both One-Eye and the Third.
Inside the Dark Horse, they find Markeb Zhorab alone and nervous. He returns Croaker's tonk cards, and among them is the parchment which Hagop had stolen from the Limper. The sight of it undoes the memory-suppression Croaker had volunteered to undergo for his own protection. Now he remembers everything. He pays Zhorab for making the copy, and then, putting a nasty-looking knife on the bar, demands that he turn over the hidden copy that he no doubt made. The bartender complies.
On the way back to the compound, Hagop intercepts them with a message. The Captain wants Goblin to make direct contact with The Lady, immediately, to announce that the Company has Tides Elba. Goblin is frightened because the process is painful, but, it is for their own protection. The Limper could take their captive from them, and all the credit, if they don't act quickly. Croaker hands Hagop a parchment, and tells him to stick it back where he stole it on the Limper's carpet. What he hands him is an obvious copy, not the original.
In the compound, Tides Elba is bound in the Captain's office. They have placed a necklace on her which should cause pain if she attempts to use her attraction spell. When Goblin establishes mental contact with The Lady, he has a seizure as usual. While the Captain is distracted tending to Goblin, Croaker quickly stuffs the original parchment, the one containing a crude insult to The Lady in the Limper's own handwriting, into the confused young woman's clothes.
As they all feared, the Limper arrives to take the girl for himself. He charges in after detonating the office door with a spell. However, he is too late. Goblin successfully contacted The Lady moments earlier. Instead of replying only to Goblin inside his mind, this time she manifests physically with a magic projection of her face. She smiles directly at Croaker and begins addressing everyone in the room.
The Lady explains that Tides Elba is the granddaughter of one of her deceased sisters, and they share an uncanny resemblance. Croaker, having seen the face of Soulcatcher, surmises Tides Elba's grandmother must be one of The Lady's other (long-dead) sisters, since the resemblance is not strong. She then reveals that the young woman's grandfather was none other than the Dominator, who was infamously promiscuous, and who slept with all her sisters and all three of the women among the Ten Who Were Taken. The Lady needs to capture Tides Elba because she was about to mate with an unidentified male descendant of the Dominator… and their child would become a vessel into which the Dominator could project his own soul.
This whole ordeal was to stop the Dominator's latest escape attempt after his failure to overthrow The Lady at the Battle of Charm.
As The Lady speaks, Tides Elba begins unconsciously emitting her attraction aura. The necklace they have placed on her is not strong enough to counteract her power. Although she cannot understand the language The Lady is using, the young woman realizes how dangerous her captors are, and soils herself in fear.
Without speaking aloud, The Lady warns the Limper. He bows respectfully, and leaves with the young captive. The Lady's projection disappears. The Black Company men exit the office. They see the Limper loading Tides Elba into a sack, sewing it, and tying it down onto his flying carpet, so she cannot roll off to commit suicide. He flies off.
Hagop emerges from the shadows, grinning: while they were all in the office, he attached the copied parchment to the Limper's carpet, right where he stole the original, just as Croaker told him to. Right before they came out, he observed from hiding that the Limper noticed it and jumped in surprise, realizing that the Company had some dirt on him. Satisfied, they all depart for drinks and tonk at the Dark Horse.