Penycher pit, p.1
Penycher Pit, p.1Stuart Parker
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart Parker
Cover Design: SelfPubBookCovers.com/billwyc
For Joan & Ray
The Dark Ages
The Saxon lords were toiling with picks and shovels in the deep pit of mud and rock.
There were almost fifty of them. Dressed in deer and rabbit leather and with swords strapped to their backs. Other lords had come and gone, pink gold having been added to their armoury and their titles. They were the chosen ones, the Brotherhood of Pink Gold. Those that remained behind in the pit were an unknown quantity, feared but not revered. They were like seeds burrowing into the mud in a desperate quest to sprout.
The Romans, with their empire languishing, had abandoned Britain a decade earlier. Tribal war amongst the Saxons was rife as kingdoms battled for supremacy. It was for this reason that a wretched pit in a remote corner of Britain had drawn together such an ensemble of Britain’s most hardened warriors. Even a sliver of pink gold placed in the hilt of a sword or worn as a necklace could give the possessor an unbeatable advantage in battle. The strength of bears and the speed of lightning. The precious metal’s soft pink colour belied its lethal capabilities. Something to gain at any cost. Many had already died in the attempt.
The Wizard Merdel felt the tragedy of it keenly. He had been the first to find the pink gold, back when there had been a forest where the pit now lay. Merdel had filled a large wooden chest with the pink gold and withdrawn to the abandoned Roman stone tower on the edge of Penycher Village. He spent long days sitting on his throne at the top of the tower, looking over the pit, well aware the stocks of pink gold were fast running out. The screams of jubilation as pieces of pink gold were uncovered was becoming less and less common and the pieces themselves much smaller than they once had been. Merdel knew the lords were turning their attention to him with envious eyes. His only defence from attack was a wide moat around the tower and the serpents that plied its deep waters. Every day, he sprinkled pink gold dust into the moat to keep the serpents evolving into evermore powerful creatures. The pink gold was having a similar affect upon him too, his grey beard returning to its original brown and his worn out, frail body becoming strong again. And his head had become full of ideas. From morning until night his thoughts kept turning over. So many mysteries had become clear to him: how the Pharaohs had built their pyramids, how a catapult could fire further than had ever been done before, how to build a bridge on a scale previously unimaginable - it all just leapt out at him. He made notes on empty scrolls left behind by the Romans and added them to his wooden chest. Day after day he had worked tirelessly until the scrolls had become volumes. He was certain their value was far greater than the pink gold in his possession. But they would be worthless unless he could escape the tower. He had considered simply asking the lords of Penycher Pit: making an offer to surrender his pink gold in return for safe passage. But he had decided against it, for he hoped there were more ideas to come. How to cure diseases, how to grow crops more effectively - knowledge that could improve lives. A better use of the power of pink gold than in the hands of power-hungry warriors.
So, in quieter moments the wizard turned his thoughts to the question of escape. Despite the many far-reaching ideas he had had, this one remained elusive. The one thing he was sure of was that he could not manage it alone. He looked out over the village of Penycher and the vast Matholwich Forest beyond and he pondered.
The Forest of Death
It was raining heavily and a large black spider was crawling along the muddy ground at Nero’s feet.
Nero watched its progress for a time and then slammed his leather-sandled foot upon it. He wiped the remains of the spider off on a clump of damp grass. ‘Death doesn’t leave much of a mark in weather like this,’ he murmured. He ruefully raised his sword to eye-level. ‘Just look at my sword. Sadly, it seems rust is thicker than blood.’
‘I hope the blade is still strong,’ said Cokael, his young female companion. ‘There are enemies in this forest that won’t fit under your boot.’
Nero and Cokael were sheltering from the afternoon downpour under a tall oak tree, deep within Matholwich Forest. Cokael was shivering from the cold and Nero was twitching from the discomfort of standing still.
Nero was not the name that had been bestowed upon him by his long deceased parents, it was the nickname given to him by his comrades in arms, the Immunes. The Immunes were the finest soldiers in all of Rome and a nickname from them meant far more than anything his parents had had to offer. They called him Nero because the battle scars upon his back bore a peculiar resemblance to the notorious emperor. Nero had become convinced it was some kind of blessing from the gods and kept his upper body proudly on display, even in icy cold weather such as this. Not that he paid the elements much heed. His thick leathery skin had endured whole winters exposed and this current weather was to his mind little more than a spring drizzle.
‘Do not fear, Cokael,’ he said to his companion. ‘Although the rust stains may set, the blood of men comes and goes with effortless ease.’ He flicked aside the long straggly brown hair encroaching over his eyes. ‘That is the fickle nature of a soldier.’ He pulled the woman closer and kissed her hard. He found her lips less than accommodating and withdrew unsatisfied. ‘Are you of ill health?’ he queried.
‘I think so,’ Cokael replied. ‘Can you tell?’
‘Your kiss has made me cold.’
Cokael frowned. She was a fraction taller than him and a decade younger. She had pale skin and wispy brown hair. She took Nero’s arm and said adamantly, ‘I’m alright. I just feel lost.’
‘Then I’ll kiss you again.’ Nero squeezed her even tighter and kissed her fiercely, the strength of his body pinning her against the tree. Cokael tried to return the kiss, to let him know she did not regret being here. Her parents and her husband had provided her with warmth and a sturdy roof, but there was something irresistible about this man, and although he had come to her looking for shelter, she had ended up running away with him into the forest. And here they were. Nero turned away sharply and looked over his shoulder at a fixed point that was nowhere in particular. ‘That was better but we need to keep our eyes on our backs. For any creature in this forest, we best assume it bites.’
‘So, how lost are we?’ she queried.
‘We know our destination, and that’s all that really matters.’
Cokael stepped away from the tree. She cupped her hands and idly watched as rainwater ran in heavy streams between her fingers. ‘Perhaps it was not wise of us to run off from the others to bathe and make love.’
‘Unwise? It didn’t feel unwise at the time.’
‘No, it didn’t.’
Nero took from his shoulder bag a blue and white spotted mushroom. He offered it to her. ‘Take a bite of this and you’ll feel better.’
‘I don’t like mushrooms.’
‘This one is different. Mulchis brought one back from Pollio’s garden and managed to farm it. He says they’re called the Dragon Tear.’
Cokael gripped his wrist and took a large, hungry mouthful. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m acting like a wild animal.’
‘That’s what it takes to survive in these parts.’ Nero tucked the remaining mushroom away in his shoulder bag.
‘You’re not having some?’
‘I already had a whole one this morning, and my rusted sword has been sharp ever since. You can finish yours off for tomorrow’s breakfast.’
As the mushroom quickly took effect with its life restoring properties, Cokael stepped to him, ready for that kiss now, but Nero abruptly pushed her away. ‘Wait a moment. There are vibrations at my feet.’ He knelt dow
Nero looked back to Cokael. ‘Are you alright?’
Cokael was gaping. ‘You cut off the horse’s head.’
‘Yeah, I did.’
‘My fortuneteller said I would marry a man whose cut was sharper than his sword.’
‘But she added that I would be forever cursed for it.’
Nero frowned. ‘What kind of fortuneteller would want to scare a sweet girl like you?’ He noticed the driver crawling out of the upturned carriage and abruptly strode that way. The driver was covered in mud and was bleeding from a gash on his forehead.
‘Are you alright?’ murmured Nero. ‘Let me help.’ He put his sword to the man’s throat. ‘How about this for assistance?’
The man gazed down at the blade and shuddered. ‘Please, don’t.’ His blackened teeth, blotchy skin and putrid clothes attested to him being nothing more than a pitiful peasant.
Nero lowered the blade. ‘Relax. You are in one piece. And, for the time being at least, the only blood on my sword is that of your horse.’
‘It might as well be mine,’ the man said ruefully, climbing up onto his knees.
‘Why do you say that, friend?’
‘I would prefer you call me Ollis. It is my name and is a fact. The term friend is an opinion and liable to turn into a falsehood.’
Nero chuckled. ‘It’s true your life wouldn’t be any more secure if I called you friend. Ollis it is then.’
The man turned exasperated to his upturned carriage. ‘I have obtained fruits with precious medicinal properties for my sick daughter, Aylene. I was rushing them to her. They may be her last chance of life.’
Nero’s interest was piqued. ‘Obtained them from where?’
‘They were given to me by a gardener. He too put a sword to my throat.’
‘Sounds to me like Pollio.’
Ollis nodded. ‘You know him?’
‘Pollio Gardens is our destination. We have two companions who are further along the road than us. We became split up, you see. I stopped you to ask if you have seen them. Mulchis and Valitino are their names. They are nice people same as me.’
‘I have seen no one.’
‘At the speed you were travelling, you could easily have run them down and not been any the wiser.’
‘Speed for the sake of my daughter,’ Ollis insisted. ‘And besides, this forest is an evil place. There is no going slowly if you want to live.’
‘Well, I’m sorry to say you will be walking now - that’s if you get to keep your head intact on top of your body. You’re certain you didn’t see anyone on the roads?’
‘I have not seen a sole since departing Pollio Gardens.’
‘Then let me ask you another thing. And remember you are trying to save your life by being useful. Is this the way to the Pollio Gardens?’
‘Yes.’ The manner in which Ollis winced, however, suggested it was a loaded answer.
Nero frowned. ‘What is it?’
Ollis opened his mouth only for his words to get stuck in his throat. He collapsed back to the ground and a bloody foam formed on his lips.
Cokael gasped and Nero hurriedly turned to show his hands were empty. ‘I didn’t cut his throat, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ He knelt down beside Ollis. The man’s eyes were still open and his mouth was still trying to form words. Nero put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What is it, Ollis? Are you poisoned? Have you been bitten?’ He put a hand to Ollis’s forehead. ‘You’re icy cold.’
‘Pollio Gardens was so difficult to find,’ Ollis finally managed to whisper, ‘so well hidden, and when I finally found it, I was hungry.’ He gasped for air. ‘Some plums caught my eye. They were a bright purple and looked so succulent. I couldn’t resist. They were so deliciously bitter sweet.’ He coughed and wretched. ‘I couldn’t stop eating.’
‘Has a pip got stuck in your throat?’
‘Pollio came upon me and snatched the plums from me. He told me that they were lethal. He saw that there were two pips in my hand and said that if that was all I had eaten, there was a chance I could make it home before the sickness took hold. But he didn’t know that in my pocket there were many more pips. I had been intending to take them home to plant. Instead it will be my lifeless body that will be planted now.’
Nero took a step back, and watched the final death throes of the poisoned man. It didn’t take long.
Cokael slid up beside Nero, her eyes gaping. ‘Is he dead?’
‘Very dead. This is why Mulchis warned us about eating the fruits in Pollio’s Garden. Pollio has bred the most delectable looking plants to be the most poisonous. It is his way of defending his garden should the beasts lurking the depths of the forest trespass upon it. Apples a little too polished, grapes a little too sweet. Irresistible and deadly. Who knows what deathly treats are awaiting in his little bag? I’ll stick to my mushrooms.’
‘While I am with you, I will choose the mushrooms too. If I were left with the husband my parents chose for me, I would taste the plums.’
Nero pointed to the upturned carriage. ‘Tonight we will have a roof over our heads. Or, at least, a floor. While you prepare a fire, I will bury our friend and his horse.’
‘It is good of you to offer a burial for this man, but is the same necessary for the horse?’
‘Their scents might attract the beasts during the night. I won’t be long. Turns of a shovel come easy in these parts. It is a forest very welcoming of its dead.’
‘Charming. But such conditions make it hard to light a fire.’
‘Look through the carriage for burnables. But if you find Ollis’s bag of fruit, I would recommend you leave it alone.’ Nero walked around the carriage in search of a shovel or other implement that might be of use in the digging of graves.
The rabbit was sitting nervously in the long wet grass.
It lifted its head just high enough for its pricked ears to penetrate into space. Hunger and the allure of the morning sunshine had coaxed it out of its burrow and it held its position for a moment longer, its senses dissecting the forest’s normal activity for the slightest whisper of danger. It, however, stood no chance against the razor-sharp arrow. The arrowhead pierced its brain and it was dead.
It was a fine shot and Nero realised he had to take extra care in his approach. He crept into a thicket of trees on the other side of the grass clearing and crouched down low. He had heard voices but not yet seen anyone. He would have his curiosity sated. As he waited, he nibbled at the last of the mushroom he had started on earlier that day under the upturned carriage with Cokael. He needed the edge it would give him, for he suspected whoever had shot that arrow was more than just a local farmer.
With the rustling of vegetation, there emerged an unsuspecting hunter, just as ripe for an ambush as had been his prey. Nero, however, was surprised to see it was merely a young boy of about ten years of age. The boy had fuzzy black hair, was quite short and a walked casually into the clearing on his way to collecting his prize. Nero had not been able to kill a rabbit like that til
‘A good Saxon name. So, it was you that made the shot?’
Maynard picked up the rabbit by the arrow-shaft and gave Nero a look of haughty disdain beyond his years. ‘Do you see me carrying a bow? It was my father who made the shot. Lord Landard.’
Nero stopped abruptly and glanced about the trees. ‘A lord no less? Well, those chubby cheeks of yours tell me that shot was no fluke. You look very well fed.’
‘Who are you?’ came a hard voice, sending Nero’s heart jumping. A tall man emerged from the forest directly behind the young boy. He was dressed in well-made fur and leathers and his looks and swagger very much resembled the boy’s. Nero disliked him immediately. An arrogant Saxon. But a tad incautious, for although he was indeed armed with a bow, he was coming too close to use it effectively. Nero drew his sword. ‘You need only think of me as the Immunes, the sworn enemy of the Saxon ruling class.’
Landard glowered. He handed off his bow to his son and drew his sword in turn. ‘Leave the rabbit and step aside, Maynard. We have come across a man who deserves to die.’
‘Yes, father.’ Maynard’s eyes were wide and full of excitement.
Landard took a fighting stance before Nero. ‘The Immunes were swept from these shores along with every other relic of the miserable Roman legions. All that remains is a band of Roman bastard outlaws, fast dwindling in number, and there will be one less before my rabbit stew is served.’
The two men came at each other with their light steps belying the weight of the weaponry in their hands. When the blades came together, however, there was no mistaking the immense power of the impact, and Maynard shuffled back some more. As the dual progressed, a growing unease emerged in the pit of the Maynard’s stomach, for he had never seen his father tested in this manner, not even when sparring with the best of the lords at Penycher. Landard’s combinations that usually sent opponents tumbling disarmed and beaten onto their backs were now being effortlessly withstood by a seemingly impenetrable defence. And what made it even worse was the carefree smile on the opponent’s face. Nero was absorbed in his enjoyment of the swordplay, very much like they were two friends sparring with training swords. He was fighting without urgency, without malice. But then all of a sudden something turned within him and a bloodthirsty rage erupted and manifested itself in a maniacal attack. Surprise and apprehension crept onto Landard’s face as his sword began to wilt under the onslaught.
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