Chapter 10: The Rowdy Rooster

The Rowdy Rooster was a hole-in-the-wall tavern, where all manner of riffraff gathered to drink and gamble. It was just the sort of dive Magatha had spent a lifetime avoiding like the plague. However, that evening it was exactly where she needed to be, a rotten dump to match how she felt inside. It had not even been a week since she buried her husband, and all the time since had been spent scouring the woods with Mayor Barth for some sign of her missing son. Her feet felt as raw as her spirits were low.

Not a single head in the bar bothered to turn in their direction as the door opened. Inside, shuffling behind the mayor with her head hung low, the stench of cheap tobacco and aged piss rose up to greet her. Magatha paid it no mind. She felt numb to the world.

The tavern was more packed than she would have thought at this hour. Didn’t anyone have to get up early and tend to their fields? Table after table of dangerous-looking men filled the place, shouting and draining pitchers of watered down ale. She wondered if they might be bandits, but for every one of them, there were at least two farmers or traders from town. Honest folk done with a hard day’s work. Even a group of badgers took up some space in a dusty corner.

Magatha shook her head. None of these folk would probably have heard what happened in Westfall. And even if they had, how many might care?

A rough-looking man glared at them from behind the bar. Magatha thought he could have been a bald pirate just as easily as a provisioner of spirits. He flipped a soiled towel over his shoulder and slapped down two wooden coasters before a pair of empty stools. Mayor Barth tipped his hat to the man and pulled one of the stools away from the bar for Magatha.

The muscles in her lower back and thighs felt like stretched rubber bands finally released as she plopped down onto the torn leather seat with all her weight. It felt good to get off her feet. She leaned into the sticky bar and sighed.

“What’ll it be?”

Mayor Barth set his hat on the bar, inspecting the bottles behind the barkeep rather dubiously. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed his forehead. “Evening. Water in a clean glass for the lady and a pint of moon ale for me.”

Before the bartender could form a scowl, Magatha spoke up. “Pfft. Give me water only if you’re looking to hire me to clean this floor. It’s a scotch I’ll be taking—double straight single malt, skip the ice.”

The barkeep’s demeanor altered. He nodded approvingly before heading to the other end of the bar to fix her drink.

Magatha watched him leave with resignation then turned to find Barth staring at her. “Tsk. I would’ve thought Carolin taught you better than to order for a woman,” she said, referring to the mayor’s late wife, gone now eleven years. Now there was a dear friend. She suddenly wished Carolin could be there with her at that moment. She had always been so clever. She would know what their next move should be.

Magatha recalled how devastated Barth had been after his wife passed, and it was Gordy who had stayed up three nights straight consoling the man. A conversation she and Gordy had afterward swam up to the surface and tears filled her eyes. It had been simple teasing at the time, but Gordy had made her promise never to leave him like that, all at once without any warning as Carolin had. Pfft…you’ll be well dead and buried before I’m ready to kick the bucket. Those had been her words. It had only been jest…but now those words haunted her, ridiculing her life, filling her to the brim with a trembling sorrow.

Barth placed a delicate hand on her back, between her shoulders. She could feel the warmth from his palm right through her dress. It helped a little, centering her back in the tavern and putting some distance between her and thoughts of the past. “Now don’t fret, Magatha,” he said. “The lad’s got to be out there somewhere.”

“You saw it plain as I did,” Magatha said, swallowing back the lump in her throat. “That noose…the blood…they hung my baby.”

It had not taken long for them to find the place where the lawmen had turned off the road to do their dirty work. They certainly had not made any attempt to hide their intentions. Magatha thought she must be in a nightmare when they found the hanging tree. A noose lay at its base in the grass, bloodied and rough. She would have fainted then and there, except the body of a wolf nearby scared her straight.

It took them a few minutes to realize the wolf was dead. Someone had expertly dispatched the beast with a bolt in the side of the neck and an opened throat. Then Mayor Barth pointed out that the rope used to hang her son had been cut down, the end still bound around the trunk of a tree. The entire scenario was bizarre but somehow seemed to keep with the theme of things of late.

The bartender set their drinks down and directed his gaze to Barth.

The mayor tossed two shillings on the bar and slid Magatha’s glass toward her. “We don’t know the full of it,” he said. “Sure there was a noose, but that doesn’t prove a thing.”

Magatha moaned. Her head ached to think of these things. The whole world had gone mad and they’d forgotten to invite her along.

Someone opened the tavern door, letting in a chill breeze that cut through her to the bone. It was almost the eleventh hour. They would need to get a couple rooms for the night before setting back toward Westfall on the morrow…alone. The idea of returning to her ravaged village without her son was more than Magatha could bear.

She snatched her glass in a shaking hand and took a large mouthful. She had always liked scotch. Every winter solstice Gordy would bring home a bottle so they might celebrate the coming of the new year in proper fashion. They liked to laugh and joke over the flavors, pretending to be members of the aristocracy. It was a long smoky finish with hints of honey, or soft on the tongue with a zesty nose. Those were some of the merriest times of her life.

She took a long draught of the scotch, needing some of that merry feeling now. The liquor in her glass had none of the subtleties she craved. This was fire, down her throat and up through her nose. Tears welled in her eyes again, but they had little to do with her lost boy.

Mayor Barth misunderstood her reaction and quickly fell to patting her back again. Magatha wanted to punch the goat in his teeth, but she held her tongue. Barth was a good man. He had come all the way out here with her, combing the woods for some sign of Kwado. There had been a few tracks, uneasy to discern around the tree, but the trail had soon fell cold. Even so, Barth had remained optimistic and pushed them on in their search. No, her anger was not for him.

“Something wicked happened there in that copse,” Barth admitted. “No getting around that. But the rope…cut so and still noosed up. The boy got free some way or the other.”

The flicker of hope that produced in Magatha’s chest was just as unbearable as her depression. “But where? Where could he have gone? We’ve searched for days with no sign of him.”

Barth’s gaze grew fuzzy as his thoughts turned inward. He frowned. “The Hollow Woods are a big place, Magatha. The boy could be anywhere in those woods right now.”

One of the badgers in the corner fell to the floor, laughing on his side. Another sprayed beer out of his mouth, trying to contain his own mirth. Magatha pressed her palms to her closed eyes. She needed to stop talking for a while. She tried to tune out Barth, tried to focus on nothing. That was what she wanted to be at the moment. Nothing.

“Then I says to the troll, ‘Ye best be off, me bloke, ‘fore I give ye what’s what!’”

The words cut through Magatha’s thoughts like a crooked knife, jolting her upright. She snapped her head up and leapt off her seat, all in one movement. Before Barth could ask what had gotten into her, she made a beeline for the badgers, past a shoddy-looking pair of tar heels. None of the badgers paid her any mind as she came up to the periphery of their gathering.

“Is that Tobias-speak for, I pissed me pants and ran off?” a badger wearing a posh hat teased.

“Yeah, get a good chuckle, Jebidia,” the badger telling the tale retorted. He was a furry fellow wearing red suspenders. “Didn’t see you doin’ much better at the time, ye ninny.”

Magatha was surprised by how harmless the lot of them looked, all furry and done up proper. Gordy used to rant and rave about what cheats badgers were, but she knew that had to with his brother getting swindled by one down south.

She timidly tapped the storyteller’s shoulder. “Excuse me, brother badger,” she said, drawing all their beady eyes to her, “did I possibly just hear you mention a troll?”

The badger cocked his head back, as if stunned she was speaking to him. His eyes worked down to her toes and back up again and he tittered. “Piss off, granny. We’re not on diaper duty tonight.”

“Diaper?” Magatha mouthed.

He turned back to his friends, the group of them howling with laughter at her expense, and jumped right back into the debate. “Besides, Jebidia, ye’ve got me all wrong. Surely ye must’ve had me confused with that little wimp—ugh!”

The badger’s bluster suddenly turned to a squeal when Magatha pinched his ear between her finger and thumb, twisting hard enough to force his whole body to bend over sideways lest his ear get torn off.

“Diaper?” she repeated, this time with the prescribed piss and vinegar men only ever seemed to understand. “Is that how you speak to your elders?”

“Oy! Ye daft wench. Ye let go a’ old Tobias,” the badger with the posh hat snarled, baring his teeth.

Magatha had barely focused on him when she saw another snatch a dagger from somewhere in his leather vest. The fiend took two steps forward, lunging with his blade, before her left foot swung up to meet his groin. Two successive kicks where no man or beast could take it, and the dagger wielder crumpled to the floorboards in agony. The rest of the badgers froze in place, eyeing their fallen friend.

One of the tar heels near Barth sucked in his breath. “That’s one cold battleaxe you got there, fella.”

“Damn, lady,” Tobias said, struggling to keep in place. “Have a heart. You’re going to pull me ear clean off!”

Magatha twisted her fingers again, turning the badger’s words into a gurgle. “You want me to let go?”

He nodded feebly.

“Then I suggest you start telling me everything you know about that troll.”