Captain Itguar took a deep breath as he left Holga’s house. Batgate was a quiet town, remote enough from Greenburn that the big city chaos didn’t spill this far. Since he arrived almost forty years ago he’d only had to deal with six killings. Four of those bar brawls that got out of hand, the other two an adulteress and her lover killed by a jealous husband. This mid-market, daylight stabbing gave him a twisting pain in his gut and made his temples throb. The dozen or so witnesses who saw the stabber said it was a scruffy foreign looking kid aged anywhere between seven and twelve. There were few enough foreigners in Batgate that they stood out and although some locals were wary, most of the townsfolk held no grudges based on skin colour. As long as it wasn’t green.
No foreign families with children lived in Batgate, so that left the possibility of a traveller or a new gutter-rat. There hadn’t been many travellers since the end of summer and the gate records showed no children passing through for the last three weeks. Itguar felt it was almost certainly a new rat that’d stabbed poor Digred. Any decent sized town had a few gutter-rats. Children unwanted or orphaned who lived on the streets. The temples looked after some, but by six years old they were generally considered old enough to fend for themselves. The gutter-rats of Batgate had it a lot better than their peers in other towns. So long as the rats didn’t steal their wares, the guild traders got together at the end of the day and gave the rats any food that wouldn’t be good enough to sell the next day. Itguar had made this agreement early on in his career and as long as the guards kept the rats from other towns out of Batgate it worked well. Because of this Itguar knew all of the Batgate rats, if not by name then by sight. Any new rat in town would be easy to spot, all he had to do was trawl the alleys.
Itguar thought back to the first time he slept in an alley, the day he was turned out of the temple. Cold and hungry in Greenburn, back when it was a just ragged collection of shacks put up hastily to house and entertain the soldiers after the Great Green War. After the war his dad had married a nurse, they settled down in Greenburn and opened a supply store. The store did steady business and soon the couple started a family. Itguar was the third of four children, the youngest son. The Bloody Cough took his baby sister first, then his two brothers. Ma went before Pa and when Pa went Itguar was left alone in the store. Another store-keep took him to a priest who saw that he was fed and housed in the temple. But as The Cough took more folks, the temple filled with more and more kids until all of a sudden there was no room for him. Itguar was five years old.
For ten years he begged, struggled, fought and stole to survive mean streets of Greenburn. Then he heard of The Wound, a priest came to town and promised any fit young men a glorious life of battle for the honour of the gods. He gleefully volunteered and felt like a king in his bright new armour. The march north was the greatest time of his life, the shining ranks swelled with each town visited. Finally his life had meaning and he’d found a group to which he belonged.
He lasted at The Wound for a year and a half. For eighteen long months he battled side by side with some of the noblest men he’d ever known. But nobility was little defence against the claws, teeth, acid and flames that spewed from the Wound. Blind luck and the gutter-learned skill for hiding meant he was one of the few survive the wound. His unit slaughtered and with no officers to tell him what to do, he rode south. He found himself often crossing paths with packs of shining youths who’d been promised glory and fame. Only then did he realise he was one of the beaten and crippled men going south he’d crossed paths with on his way north to glory and fame. Glory and fame be damned, he’d sooner return to the gutter than The Wound.
He returned without much thought to the town gates of Greenburn. He’d left with nothing and reflected that he now had a little less. He paused for a moment then rode past the bustling town without looking back. He rode for more than a week stopping at twilight to set camp for the night, setting out each day as dawn broke. On the tenth night past Greenburn he felt ready for a hot meal and a hot bath to soak out the ravages of the road. The bottom of the sun dipped below the horizon and as he crested a small hill he saw a tiny village built up behind an ancient ruined gate house. By the time he got there the sun had just set and the sky turned a soft purple as twilight set in. As he rode under the arch his horse whickered at a sudden commotion overhead. He instinctively flinched and hunkered down into his saddle. A crescendo of leathery flapping and high pitched squeaks flooded over him and as he looked up hundreds, maybe thousands of bats flapped down from the archway. He settled his horse and watched in awe as the massive flock swept out of the gatehouse and swirled into the evening.
It took no time at all to get to the centre of the village and there was only one tavern to see, The Black Bat. A small place, filled with the gentle hum of conversation and merriment. The main room was lined along one wall with a well stocked bar. In the centre of the room was a large fire-pit and about a dozen tables sat around it in a circle. Half the tables were occupied. Some farmers obvious by their mud stained clothes, a group of older men that had the look of tradesmen and in the far corner a rowdy bunch of young looking soldier types. Most likely on their way to the Wound, he winced as he remembered the laughs and tales of glory that drew him there. Itguar took a seat at the bar and the innkeeper, a slightly built man with a wild ring of bright white hair around a pink shiny pate, greeted him with a friendly nod.
“I’m Sheb and welcome Stranger to the Black Bat” he said through a genuinely warm smile “What can I get for you?”
“A cool flagon of whatever you’d recommend will slake a man’s thirst and large plate of whatever you’d recommend for a hunger that’s been growling all week”
“Ah, we have just the stuff you’re looking for” he smiled again “take a seat near the fire and my daughter will bring your fare”
Sheb’s daughter was a homely girl called Barwen. She was perhaps a year or so younger than Itguar, with an explosion of fiery red hair that looked as if it had soundly defeated her comb or brush. She bought over a flagon of ale that was creamy smooth and tasted of deep malt tinged with a tickle of fruity hops. The crusty pork pie was the best thing he could remember eating. He sat quietly at a table, drinking slowly and letting his muscles unknot in the warmth of the fire. When Barwen came to offer another drink he gladly ordered some more ale and asked if there were rooms and baths for rent. They didn’t have a bath but she said he could to sleep in the main room when the bar closed. Her beaming smile meant she could have offered a bed of spikes and he’d have happily accepted. As the evening wore on the jollity rose and at one point, although he couldn’t be sure, he thought that Barwen blushed when he caught her staring at him. If he wasn’t staring at her he wouldn’t have noticed. Under his beard he felt his cheeks flush red. After two ales he switched to water, he didn’t enjoy the dizzy feeling and thumping headaches the following mornings. But as the ale flowed around the rest of the inn, some of the older tradesmen called for the farmers to sing. With much gusto and surprising harmony the farmers burst into song. Old standards at first, then as their inhibitions dropped the songs turned comical. With much laughter and encouragement the farmers then rolled out a trove of bawdy tunes. Itguar particularly chuckled at the song about a young maid called Carey Honey.
Suddenly a scream cut through the laughter and singing, The Wound left a man with lightning reflexes and Itguar instantly turned to see Barwen being pushed onto a table by one of young drunk soldiers. He instinctively leapt up and stomped through the fire pit in the shortest route to the trouble. With a burst of orange embers he arrived behind the soldier who had a hand full of Barwen’s fiery hair. He stamped on the back of the assailant’s ankle, dropping him to his knees in front of the table. A sharp shove on the back of his head slammed it into the table with a red burst as lips smashed on the wood and a crunch as teeth snapped out of their sockets. The recruit fell unconscious in a heap at Itguar’s feet. His comrades spread out and took a step back drawing their swords. The sound of steel stopped instantly hushed all other noise in the inn. All eyes swung to see the bearded stranger standing in front of the armed soldiers. Itguar put his hand on his sword grip then spoke deliberately and softly, almost whispering.
“If I draw this one of you will die, maybe more. I may die too, but things tougher and scarier than you have never made that happen. You have a choice, life or death”
He fixed them with an iron stare, and could see them weighing their chances. Unable to hold his gaze, their bluster folded and meek as lambs they sheathed their swords, picked up their friend and left the tavern.
Sheb rushed over and after making sure Barwen was ok, he shook Itguar firmly by the hand. “A cool head on those young shoulders son, we could use a man like you here. Fancy a job?”