Excerpt: Bat’s Children

The smell of rain hung in the air, droplets still falling from the fingertips of trees. The damp ground beneath him soaked through his clothes, making him shiver. He lay on his belly and peered out through the undergrowth, waiting as dusk darkened into night and bats flitted to and fro through the deepening gloom. The moon had risen in the sky, just visible between the bare branches tangled overhead. In the summer the leaves grew so thick and close on those knotted branches that nothing of the sky could be seen at all. Now, in November, it was lighter than it had been since April.

The sound of approaching hoofbeats made Arwel turn, craning his neck to the left. Someone was coming. The low hoot of an owl went up through the air, and Arwel crawled out of his hiding place. He watched from the shadows of the trees as the carriage approached. At the last minute he leapt into the road. Emyr did the same from the other side, brandishing the pistol.

The driver yanked hard on the reins and the horses reared, pulling against the bits in their mouths. Judging from the horses alone, Arwel could tell the people inside were well off. The horses’ coats were smooth, their harnesses shining. One was black, the other a pale, silver grey.

He glanced past the carriage to see Ceryn hurrying along the road towards them. It was she who had mimicked the owl, alerting him and Emyr that the carriage was safe.

Arwel stood watching the carriage while Emyr, with a little help from the pistol, coaxed the driver down from his perch. “You won’t get away with this,” the driver said, his accent local. “You boys are going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Arwel laughed. “We’ve been in trouble since the day we were born.” He gripped the driver’s upper arm and dragged him around to one side of the carriage while Emyr went to the other.

Simultaneously, they wrenched opened the carriage doors. “Hand over everything you got,” Arwel warned, and the couple’s gaze shifted from Emyr to him, “and no one will get hurt.”

“If you don’t,” Emyr added, “I’ll take great pleasure in shooting off your pretty little faces.” He waved the pistol and chuckled as the woman squeaked in fright.

“We only have a little,” the man said. “I’m just a lowly trader.”

“Then we’ll take what you got, and leave you your lives.” Arwel smiled, like he was doing them some great favour.

Ceryn held open a sack and the woman began to unfasten her pearls and brooch. She placed them inside the bag, her face crumpled in pain like she was ripping off her own skin. The man followed suit, pulling a round brass watch from around his neck and a small coin purse from his pocket for Ceryn to snatch away.

“Thank you,” Arwel said, giving a little half bow while Emyr bent to kiss the back of the woman’s hand through the kerchief wrapped around his lower face. On occasion, when they were in a good mood, they liked to play at being gentlemen. “We appreciate your generosity.”

He closed the carriage door, no doubt leaving the two to sob into each other’s arms and mourn the loss of their worldly possessions. He turned to the driver, gesturing up at the seat to indicate he should get back up there and drive on. The driver glanced from Arwel to the pistol in Emyr’s hand, now pointed at him, and shook his head. “The devil is in you boys,” he said, climbing up to the driver’s seat.

They watched the carriage out of sight before turning into the trees. They soon reached a downward slope and followed it, their footsteps quick and sure despite the tangles of tree roots, undergrowth and loose rock. Arwel could hear the rush of the falls and smell the damp scent of the water’s spray. They proceeded down the hill, keeping a fast pace until they came to the mouth of their secret cave hidden amongst the scrub. Arwel paused, just for a second, feeling the mist of the falls moisten his skin. Using the jagged rock as a kind of stairway, they climbed down into the cave, taking care not to slip on the moss that had regrown since they’d last scraped it away.

“Not too bad,” Emyr commented once they were inside. Arwel untied his mask and left it in a pile with Emyr and Ceryn’s. While Ceryn set about sparking the flint to light a candle, Arwel shook out the contents of the purse, feeling the shape and weight of the coins in his hand. There was over two pounds altogether. He wasn’t sure about the pearls though. He was no expert, but they seemed fake to him. Tomi would hopefully be able to tell him more.

Pulling a small key from around his neck, Arwel unlocked a heavy wooden chest and deposited the items inside before locking it again. Since he was the oldest, he had the only key, a fact that Emyr often complained about but never acted against. Arwel was always fair in dividing the gains from their night’s takings.

They left the cave a few hours before dawn and crept back across the fields. Their house was more of a hut, really, with only one room. They all slept together, the bed just large enough to accommodate three slight people, although Emyr and Ceryn often hit and kicked out in their sleep, waking Arwel frequently. It was a good ten miles outside the town, and the nearest neighbours were the Smiths, a family who’d relocated from England and lived in the big farmhouse a mile and a half down the road.

Arwel was quite proud of their little hut. The Smiths’ predecessors had rented it out to his father for a shilling a month, back when he and their mother had been newlyweds. The rent had gone up slightly since then, but Ceryn kept it clean and cooked well, and although they weren’t anyone’s idea of an idyllic family, they were at least a family, and this hut was their home.

Despite the hour, they were tired, and none of them saw any problem with sleeping in. Arwel slept well that night, knowing that he had enough goods locked away in his chest to interest Tomi. Soon, he was sure, they would be moving up in the world.

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