Unedited first draft, spelling mistakes and all.
The cards fell onto the table in a chaos, some face up and others down, but the players no longer noticed as their attention wandered from the game to the jars the drunk from and the jokes the spurted out between fits of laughter, and far from the duty that should have concerned them.
Sergeant Brittain heard the game before he saw the men. Their laughter echoed from the stone walls of the guardhouse the moment he opened the door. He knew as soon as he heard the familiar loud guffaw that his Captain was once again carousing with the assorted hangers on that accrued to his noble birth like scale on a urinal wall. Deliver my report and then leave, but even as the thought entered his mind Brittain knew it would not be that simple.
‘It is the brave Sergeant’
The men looked up from the large, oldwood table around which they slouched. At the far end Swainsthorne sat amongst a pile of food scraps, coinage and the rumpled remains of what might once have been official documents, now scrawled over with the mans awful ribald poetry. He gawped at Brittain, slack jawed, like a baby startled in surprise at being snatched from its mothers tit.
But it was Potzo, not the addled Swainsthorne, who had greeted Brittain’s entrance. The gambler grinned at his colleagues around the table, not one of them less than bleary eyed and saturated to the brim with ale, as though he had composed an ode of such veracity and wit they should all stand and applaud. Instead they laughed once again harder, and Brittain was not surprised at the lack of any cause for such humour.
‘He has come back to snap at your heels again, Henri.’
What Brittain knew of Potzo consisted of little more than the mans almost certainly exaggerated feats as a duellists. Not entirely false however, as Brittain had seen the gambler gut an opponent half a year before. It had been a weak fight, the man was drunk beyond reason but then so was Potzo, but even before he had met the winner in person he had less respect for him than the average gutter thief. It took less than three words from the mans mouth to make that opinion fall lower.
‘Sir. I’m to make the shift report to you.’ Brittain said.
“Whath?” Captain Henri Swainsthorne slurred his reply. Brittain watched as a bubble of spit formed at the corner of the mans lips and slowly inflated and then reduced with each of his commanding officers spittle laden breathes. Some power or collection of powers in the universe had seen fit to make this man Brittain’s superior. He wished that he did not know what powers had made this happen, that they were some pantheon of mythical gods playing tricks with the mortal world. But these powers were far more mundane. Power. Money. Rank. The nobs look after the nobs.
“Sir.’ Britain continued. ‘On this the 44th day of Eve, the year being of the Hound and the Bull, the 5th Street Barricade collected the following tithes. Inwards cam four single mounted passed each leaving their farthing. One farm wane passed, leaving a cage of two hens. Outwards three more riders, all leaving three farthings and…’
‘Whath?’ Swainsthorne flapped an arm around before him as he repeated the question. One sweaty hand swept across Brittains face, the dirty fingers catching on his lips where the Captain groped further, as though trying to discover what it was he probed. Other than turning his face away a quarter turn Brittain stood unmoving.
‘What ish it you are…muttering about Brittain.’
‘Sir, I am giving you the tally before I finish my shift.’
‘Hah,’ Potzo belched out from his seat. ‘He trying to slink off home!’
‘Home?’ Swainsthorne seemed to try and think the concept through. ‘ No home. Here. Cards. Drink.’
It took Brittain a few moments to realise the Captaon was suggesting he join the group of reprobrates he had gathered in the office of his command. Brittain felt the distaste well up from his gut and display itself on his grimacing face.
‘I have responsibilities at home.’
‘Sir.’ One of the drunken fools intervened. ‘You forgot the sir, sir, sir, sirrr…’ his voice trailed off as his eyes glazed over. The table fell silent for a moment.
‘Responsibilities, Sergeant. Your responsibility is to do as I command.’
Brittain did not respond. His temper threatened to erupt and he knew he could not guarantee any words from his mouth would be anything more than violent swearing.
‘I know why he wants to go home!’
Potzo interrupted the silence. Brittain refused to look at the man but he could tell from the excitement in his tone that the drunken fool really thought he had discovered some eternal truth, or at the very least a jibe that would cut to the quick.
‘He wants a go.’
The table waited for some explanation, but Potzo just sat and smirked as though it should be self evident.
‘A go at what Potz?’
The little weasel look confused that nobody had got the quip, but then smirked, and Britain realised the man had cottoned on that he could screw an extra ounce out of the moment. Just as the man spoke Brittain guessed his meaning.
‘Its that daughter of his. Every other man has had her, why shouldn’t he.’
The table was two broad to reach across easily and the men between Vrottain and Potzo sober enough to move jumped up to barr his attack, so Brittain found himself barricaded away from the cretin by wood and arms. But Potzo had pushed up and skipped back across the room where he now grinned foolishly. Brittain could see the craven in that grin. Fucking duelist, he thought, you can kiss this soldiers arse.
‘Now Sergeant.’ Swainsthorne seemed to have sobered slightly with the excitement, and in the drinks place was superior attitude that turned Brittains stomach. ‘Think of your family.’
And to his shame Brittain did, appaled to his gut that thje Captaons threat would work so easily, even if not as intended. All he wanted then was to walk out of the Captains office and back to his home where his wife or one of the young ones would be there to greet him. All day from the moment he had started the shift to the moment he walked through the guard door all he had wanted was to get home. And now all he had to do was finish his report and then walk out, just as simple as that. He relaxed against the men who held him back and slowly disentangled himself.
‘Very good Sergeant, Very good.’
Above the ruckus no one had noticed the calling from the guardhouse door. Now in the moments silence Britain thought he could hear his name being called
‘Now I’m sure Potzo will apologise for his little remark, wont’t you Potz?’
The little rat just grinned on, maybe scarred, maybe happy Brittain thought. Outside the calls grew louder and clearly carried the Sergeant’s name.
‘Seems you have more duty Segeant. Attend to it.’
Brittain took a moment to straighten his jerkin and then turned towards the chamber door. Potzo had returned to his seat as he passed and for a moment Brittain thought he might actually leave the room without further trouble.
Potzo, hissed the words without looking at Britain, too the other men around the table. If that had been all Briatin would have walked, but Brittain knew that would not be all. Best do it right if I do it at all, thought the soldier.
‘Maybe I’ll get myself a go at that little slu…’
The first blow knocked Potzos head forward hard. Britain grabbed a handful of the mans heair in his fist and with the full strength of his arm smacked his face onto the oldwood table. Card chips shot into the air, a bottle toppled over spilling claret on the carpet and from somewhere beneath Brittains fist came a dull crunch, then another and another as he slammed Potzos face against the table until there was nothing of it left.
Two of the gamblers made it to their feet by the third smash, but they sat down again when Brittain told them to.
Duty, then home. Briattin thought, and then realised he had said the thought aloud. The men at the table looked at him in shocked confusion, and Swainsthorne once again gawped like a stricken child. He met their look with a nod, then turned and headed too his duty.