“Take a look at them: rags for what should be armour, knives for what should be weapons. The small statures bely their low birth: peasants and the poor of the city, the disposessed and the petty thieves. Shall we put them into the front line, where they can do little but run away, the little cowards? And by all gods, these won’t be the men to guard our homes, I would trust the enemy more. What shall they be good for?”
The Black Feathers, or Ravens are the real trash among the mercenary companies. Some claim they are just bandits avoiding the hangman. Truly, where a noble warrior would strip his foe of his armour or take the horse, they will tear off the clothes of the dead, and pull the boots of their feet, no personal trinkets forgotten. They too leave the field of battle with wagons full of loot, many times of little worth, but often finding what others have missed. Raven or vulture is one of the friendlier names being used for them.
As said, they are not the ones for the front line. Their contracts often specify what they will do, and what not (and they DO retreat if the opposition is too strong). The only reason why most would consider hiring them is that they are so cheap. Some say it is better to hire them than to bother killing them when the other side does.
Where there is loot and little combat, they will gladly go, and can even do good work, thus the lord can keep the experienced warriors where they are needed, and force the enemy to part his own forces.
- harassing enemy supply lines - obviously.
- attacking weakened units - the Ravens are good at finishing what others have begun.
- taking out small or little defended targets - this can include kidnapping and sabotage
- basic spying - they are not very good at this, but better than nothing. Don’t forget to hire skilled spies and scouts, though.
- ambushes of any kind - they can do this quite well, and play the peasants if necessary.
Tactics and weaponry:
Imagine the mounted knight in his shining armour is charging with sword and shield, wounding or killing anyone in his path. Those courageous enough would confront him with a spear or another sword.
The Ravens would kill the noble steed, throw a net on him and take him out while he can’t move; not necessary killing, but keeping alive for ransom, take away all clothes and anything precious and keeping him half-naked to have fun until someone pays for the poor soul. The horse-flesh will be of course sold or eaten. A few of the captured knights have taken their own lives, for they could not live with the shame.
(Note that it is often part of the contract to offer all captives to the warlord first, and haggle for their worth.)
As for the equipment, it is of low quality or captured, the armour rarely more than a leather jerkin sewn from several, apparently used parts.
The weapons vary, but usually require little training and maintenance, preferring speed to impact. Some older soldiers are skilled with trowing knives, which is about the only thing that could be recognized as a ‘signature weapon’. They will fight dirty if necessary, which is almost always.
Of tools they take whatever is at hand or can be improvised for the mission; as mentioned before, nets are currently in favour.
An important tool is the Winter kiss, a dirty concoction of a few common herbs many apply on their weapons and arrows. As a poison it is very weak, for deaths are rare, but it weakens its victim considerably, ideal for capturing or finishing off. Hence, the favoured tactic is to quickly wound a target, stay in cover and wait until it is too weak.
Some of them also carry crude bows, but the quality and small skill destine them to just deliver the Winter Kiss and little else.
A recruit should wear a black feather unless on a mission that requires otherwise.
History and standing:
The group was formerly a peasant levy that has lost his lord, and somehow preserved its existence. Permanently called Ravens by others, their first commander has chosen the name ‘Black Feathers’, a name that has even get some notoriety. Sadly his own name has been forgotten, and it is only some fifty years after its founding. The group has a general tendency to forget what happened in the past with alcohol and other drugs, and most of the loot ended there.
While disliked by many, the Feathers have already have a few successes in using their dirty tricks.
To sum up, nobody really likes them, but smart commanders see their value. And as they are cheap, they can be sure they won’t be unemployed anytime soon.
The Feathers like to recruit from where their roots are - peasants and minor criminals, saving them from the hard labour or loosing a hand (a common punishment for a thief). If they are hired, they ask the warlord to free some minor offenders - and the wish is often granted. They also take vagabonds and street urchins if they look healthy enough (possibility for an interesting PC background).
For this they demand utter loyalty, or something that comes close to it. No one shall run away too sun, and killing a comrade will be repayed likewise.
The iron rule of splitting loot is this: half to the finder, half to the company - applied to anything from clothes to captives and the ransom gained. Breaking the rule will be punished painfully, but without leaving permanent traces. Most eventually learn to share with their company (it is easier to sell the stuff anyway).
To be a commander of the Ravens is perhaps the most precarious position: one must balance the ruthlessness needed to keep a semblance of order, with the care and fairness for own soldiers (otherwise the commander won’t last long). At the same time, the company must look at least somewhat trustworthy and useful to its allies, or it could find itself sent on a suicidal mission or not hired anymore. The men have too often a vice or two and diffilcut personalities, so should the wrong commander be elected (yes, a commander is chosen by election; via majority vote until the next election; recruits without war experience cannot vote), the company will probably fall apart. So far they have been lucky.
The commander decides how to split the common loot, and handles all disputes, punishing if necessary. He also bargains for and signs the contract in the name of the company.
The company has usually around two hundred men, that do what is necessary at the moment. There are also ten wagons, more can miraculously appear, borrowed they say, if there is enough loot.
The company has no permanent location to camp.