Penycher pit, p.10
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       Penycher Pit, p.10

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘Hello!’ Patrick called out, stopping at the wall. ‘Is anyone there?’

  The door to the farmhouse opened abruptly and an old man wearily emerged. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

  ‘Patrick the Axeman. If you’re not too busy, there is a feast beckoning.’ Patrick pulled the horse meat out of the saddlebag. ‘A gift from the Queen as a small gesture of gratitude for Young Thomas’s service in Penycher Pit and an apology for his absence. It will be the best meat you have ever tasted. The Queen’s own food.’

  The old man paused a moment as he mulled over Patrick’s presence. ‘The Axeman,’ he muttered. ‘You did well in the Queen’s games. You could’ve handled those two brothers too if they hadn’t ganged up on you.’

  ‘It was just a bit of fun.’

  ‘Missing out on the gold ingot can’t have been too much fun.’

  ‘At least I have Agrestis.’

  The old man nodded. ‘Your fighting qualities have earned the respect of the people in the village. And they are glad that it is you guarding them at night.’

  ‘You sent Egren to have a word about your Young Thomas.’

  ‘That’s right. He still hasn’t come home. Have you seen any signs of my son in the forest?’

  ‘No,’ said Patrick. ‘But it is a big forest. Young Thomas may be on his way home yet.’

  The old man nodded half-heartedly. ‘Yes, he might be.’

  Patrick gestured to the meat of Omen and Dusk. ‘Do you accept the Queen’s offer?’

  ‘It would be an honour. Tell the Queen we are incredibly grateful and flattered that she would think of us.’

  Patrick nodded. ‘I certainly will. But for the moment I will start the fire and cook the meat the way it should be.’

  ‘With my wife here to help me, I’m sure I can manage.’

  ‘You won’t if you find yourself with uninvited guests,’ said Patrick gravely. ‘Human or otherwise.’ He swung over the wall. ‘You may be able to keep your chickens in, but there is no wall in this village to keep out the creatures of the forest.’

  ‘You’re right, Patrick the Axeman. All we have is you.’

  *

  ‘The Queen’s Sacrifice has not returned, Your Highness,’ announced a nervous attendant at the threshold of the Queen’s expansive tent.

  The Queen glared at him from her wooden throne. ‘And the Witness?’

  ‘No, Your Highness.’

  ‘Is there still light left in the day?’

  ‘Dusk has arrived.’

  The Queen waved him away and turned to the two men seated at her table: Lord Marjory and Lord Zwingli, the commander of her army. ‘My Sacrifice was commanded to be back by nightfall. Do you think he might have simply become lost in the forest?’

  ‘The guide you sent with him is a local,’ replied Martory. ‘I doubt they are lost.’

  The Queen sipped her mulled wine and looked across to the mound of heated rocks warming the tent. ‘It would be a shame to lose him. This particular Sacrifice has lasted longer than most. He has placated Fate all over the kingdom. Perhaps it is true, Martory, that the creatures in this forest are a force beyond our arts.’

  ‘They are truly monsters from another world,’ said Martory, ‘but it is the Brotherhood of Pink Gold you have to worry about. If they turn on you, your army would prove no match.’

  ‘I sent you to learn about Penycher Pit, to take hold of its secrets. Have you been successful?’

  ‘Yes, Your Highness. I uncovered a piece of pink gold within the pit. I kept it a secret from the other lords because I wanted to remain amongst them. But I have become different with it pressing against my skin.’

  ‘How different?’

  ‘I have become stronger, faster and with a nose so sharp I can sniff out enemies like a wolf.’

  ‘Do you have the pink gold with you? I would like to experience those things.’

  ‘That may be unwise, Your Highness,’ interjected Zwingli keenly. ‘This power is too new to fully understand. There is a whisper that it may bring on sickness and death to those who possess it.’

  Queen Rachel glared at Martory. ‘Then why is my best lord in possession of it?’

  ‘Because your protection is more important than my life,’ replied Martory.

  ‘But even that will not be protection enough,’ said Zwingli, gravely. ‘We require more pink gold to fortify you again your enemies.’

  ‘And so we have come to the source?’ queried Queen Rachel.

  ‘Martory tells us Penycher Pit is almost bare,’ said General Zwingli. ‘But there is another source. That is why we have brought our army.’

  ‘Merdel’s tower?’

  ‘Yes, Your Highness. There is a great cache of pink gold within its walls.’

  ‘Are you sure it is great? Has anyone actually laid eyes upon it?’

  ‘No, Your Highness. At least we now know it is true that there are serpents lurking in the tower moat. That was proven by your man bathing in its water.’

  Queen Rachel nodded. ‘It seems he was luckier that day than this.’

  ‘We will storm the fortress and seize the pink gold. It will be distributed amongst your loyal lords and soldiers and your rule will be secured.’

  ‘Very well. But I do not want you touching any, General Zwingli. Not if there is any chance of harm to be had from its properties.’ The Queen looked to Martory. ‘I would have said the same to you if it were not already too late.’

  ‘I understand, Your Highness.’

  The Queen looked Martory up and down. ‘Have there been any changes to your body?’

  ‘Some.’ Martory held out his arms and the sleeves rose halfway up his wrists. ‘It is like I am a boy again, for I am growing out of my clothes. And I am shaving many times a day.’

  ‘What about your bedroom performance?’

  Before the question could be addressed, the Queen’s attendant abruptly re-entered the tent. ‘Your Highness, the Executioner requests an audience.’

  The Queen had barely started to nod when the Executioner pushed past the attendant with large strides. ‘Your Highness, there are mutterings amongst the camp concerning the Queen’s Sacrifice.’

  ‘As far as I am aware he has not returned,’ said the Queen curtly. ‘Will I send you into the forest to find him?’

  The Executioner stiffened. ‘If Fate has chosen to accept your offer of a warrior, mounting a rescue would certainly offend it. And if Fate has also taken your Witness, perhaps you were not meant to see what has become of them.’

  ‘So, what would you suggest I do, Executioner?’

  The Executioner bowed deeply. ‘There is only one choice, Your Highness. To declare them dead or outlawed. There can be no acceptable excuse for their failure if by some miracle they return. Execution must be their punishment.’

  ‘Has nightfall really come so soon?’

  ‘Yes, Your Highness. It is quite dark.’

  Queen Rachel thought a moment. ‘Very well, dead or outlawed. But if either one of them does turn out to still be alive, I do not want you wielding your axe until I have had an audience. I am serious about that.’

  ‘As Your Highness wishes.’ The Executioner bowed again and departed.

  The Queen turned to Martory and Zwingli. ‘That is one man I daren’t allow to possess even a smidgen of pink gold. With his bloodthirsty ways, there would hardly be a head left still attached to its neck.’

  Martory nodded. ‘Let’s plan our assault on Merdel’s tower.’

  ‘Yes, by all means. I am interested to know how you are going to obtain what the wizard has pilfered from Penycher Pit.’

  *

  The Wizard Merdel was a dark silhouette leaning forward on the waist-high stone wall at the top of the tower. Dressed in black robes, he was almost impossible to see. But Patrick had known where to look. Every night the wizard would stand at that spot and throw scraps of meat into the moat followed by sprinkles of pink gold. The water would madly froth and bubble as the hungry serpents
fed. Usually the moment was brief, but on this occasion the wizard lingered just a little longer. He had tossed extra amounts of meat from his buckets and now he was releasing more of the pink gold, whipping the serpents into a frenzy.

  Patrick was on the moat’s edge, working hard to haul up a bucket he had tossed into the middle of the maelstrom. He was using all his strength, the water collected in the bucket heavier than any he had known. He worked as quickly as he could, for the bucket’s handle was stretching alarmingly, threatening to snap at any moment. He gritted his teeth with the exertion, perspiration pouring from his forehead. He got the bucket onto the ground and tossed away the damp rope that had left its mark upon his hands. Patrick’s eyes widened with the sight of the water within the bucket. It was glowing an eerie shade of soft pink. Patrick picked up the bucket and started to drink, downing the specs of pink gold floating upon the surface. It was a bitter sweet taste that immediately had his whole body in a warm tingle. Patrick drunk until he was full and then dunked the head of Agrestis into the bucket. He sloshed it around and when he lifted it out again, the blade was as shiny as the day it had been forged by the master blacksmith, Canalis. Slipping the axe back into its leather sling bag, Patrick returned his attention to Merdel, who was now standing still, seemingly returning his gaze. Patrick’s body was continuing to hum and heat and he wondered if Merdel had been feeding his serpents extra portions of pink gold in readiness for the armies coming to take it away from him.

  Now that Young Thomas’s family had feasted on the Queen’s horses and he had feasted on pink gold, Patrick was ready for his audience with the Queen. He walked with large strides, skirting the village and the roaring fires made to ward away the savage creatures of Matholwich Forest. The energy surging through Patrick’s body was exquisite, the best kind of inebriation he had ever felt. The Saxon lords toiling away in the mud of Penycher Pit might not have been so mad after all, for with even a taste of pink gold, Patrick felt capable of anything. As he neared the camp, he forced himself to slow his pace. With the Queen’s Sacrifice and the Queen’s horses lost, he could not expect a welcoming reception. The only question was how bad would it be.

  Fires lined the perimetre of the Queen’s camp and there were guards armed with spears. Patrick was scouting out a pathway into the camp when he was startled by movement from the darkness to the side. He turned quickly, taking hold of his axe.

  ‘Patrick, is that you?’ The voice was urgent and kindly and somehow familiar. Patrick strained through the darkness to identify the shadowy figure coming towards him. ‘Melania?’ he finally called out.

  ‘That’s right. I’ve been waiting for you.’

  ‘How did you know it was me?’

  ‘I saw you in the bath, remember,’ Melania replied mischievously.‘I know well what you look like. Where have you been? You’re late to return.’

  They walked to each other until they could at last make out each other’s face in the dull moonlight.

  ‘Have you been waiting long?’

  ‘Ages and I am quite cold. But it pained me to think the people I had prepared a bath for one day would not be around the next.’

  ‘Unfortunately, only one of us is still around.’

  ‘That is a shame. Banoche was a good man.’

  ‘That was his name?’

  ‘A name already forgotten by almost all.’

  Patrick was taken by the priceless simplicity of Melania’s looks and her voice that were so apparent now that he was at last alone with her. ‘That his name is remembered by you would be a preferable legacy to having a statue forged of lifeless bronze,’ he said.

  ‘It is good you feel that way, for you are in danger of a similar fate. At the behest of the Executioner, the Queen has had you outlawed.’

  Patrick paused. ‘And you would suggest I run?’

  ‘That is not a good idea. She has men with senses heightened by pink gold. They will find you wherever you hide.’

  ‘Then what do you suggest?’

  ‘You must surrender. Explain yourself to the Queen. She will spare you from the Executioner, I am sure of it.’

  ‘I would not let myself be enslaved either.’

  ‘A prisoner for one night is all that I ask. The Queen is at her most reasonable in the mornings. We will take you to her then.’

  Patrick smiled into her eyes. ‘Where am I to be tonight, then?’

  Melania took his arm. ‘Come along, prisoner.’

  Chapter 16

  The Desperate Captain

  ‘What are you eating?’ asked the drunk boat captain, Sarius Sarius, sticking his finger into the bowl to taste the broth for himself. ‘Potato stew? Or is that just how my finger tastes dipped in your water?’

  He was a well-built, rugged thirty year old with short black hair, intense blue eyes and large nose and ears. As a young man his facial features had appeared odd and disjointed, but with maturity and a hardening of his body, they had come together to form an impressively handsome whole. He was a regular customer in this small ten table thermopolium in the sleepy village of Rayal, located on the southern shore of Lake Shikijoma, and it was well known that when he was in this kind of mood, the best thing to do was keep out of his way until the mood had passed - like one of those fierce squalls that would churn up the lake from time to time. Sarius Sarius jumped up onto the table at which he had been consuming jugs of wine in spectacular quantities and bellowed at his fellow diners bent dourly over their bowls, ‘We all know what our meals are lacking: juicy, succulent fish. The staple of Rayal. But dreaming about it won’t fill our bowls.’ He kicked his own bowl of watery stew onto the floor, flapping his arms to maintain his balance on the chunky chestnut table. He picked up his goblet of wine and gulped down the last of it. ‘We know exactly what we want and Lake Shikijoma is right at our doorstep as it always has been. I don’t have the crew but I still have the best boat around. The Jellikoe has survived every storm that has lashed at it and every creature that has bitten into it. So, what are we waiting for?’ His legs were starting to wobble as though he were at sea in one of those storms. ‘Let’s get some hooks and nets and oars and we’ll have our bowls brimming with fish again.’

  ‘It is not what we want to eat that matters,’ grumbled one of the many fishermen in the thermopolium. ‘It is what wants to eat us that makes us wary.’

  ‘Coward! Even if we go as far out into the lake as we can and return empty handed, the bowls of slop served off this counter will have never tasted better.’

  Sarius Sarius jumped down onto the dusty floor and was about to spring up onto the cracked masonry of the thermopolium’s L-shaped counter when the proprietor, Llamil, rushed forward, his large, overfed stomach just the cushion to absorb Sarius Sarius’s advance.

  ‘Are you sure your bravery does not originate from my wine?’ said Llamil.

  ‘How can you say that,’ Sarius Sarius decried, ‘when I drank more yesterday?’

  Llamil possessed a hand span to envelope a fair portion of any arm, and Sarius Sarius’s were not as broad as they were back in the days when he was the best boat builder and oarsman in Rayal. Llamil clamped down tight but smiled sympathetically, yearning for a return of the days when there were enough ingredients in his pots to appease the fussiest of appetites. ‘Calm down, Sarius Sarius. You’re a captain looking for a crew and clearly there isn’t a willing one to be found here.’

  ‘Cowards!’ Sarius Sarius shouted again at the top of his voice.

  ‘Don’t be like that. Anyway, there is hope for you. A group of Romans recently arrived in town looking for a boat to hire. And a captain too. They had no luck here, either.’

  Sarius Sarius stared at him intently. ‘Do they want to catch fish?’

  ‘I sense they want more than that. They were fighting men. They reminded me of the centurions of times gone by.’

  Sarius Sarius was suddenly cold sober. ‘Did they tell you their names?’

  ‘The leader called himself Rhakotis.’

>   ‘Where are they now?’

  ‘I think they have returned to the port. There were five of them, and quite a fetching young woman was accompanying them.’

  Sarius Sarius marched away saying, ‘I would clean up my lunch but I think the floor is a suitable serving dish for the clientele here.’

  *

  The Immunes were not hard to pick out from amongst the people around Rayal’s lakeside wharf, for they were painstakingly sharpening their swords while others were idling away their time with empty conversation and fast-emptying bottles of the local wine. The Immunes had bought for themselves a rickety old longboat that had long ago been dragged up onto dry land and left to rot, and that had become their temporary base. Cimber and Squillus were sitting back against the hull and Mulchis and Kaen were standing. Sarius Sarius approached them cautiously, recognising exponents of war when he saw them. ‘Good afternoon, gentleman,’ he said still at some distance. ‘I have been informed that you are looking for a vessel.’

  The four men glanced passed their swords at Sarius Sarius with varying degrees of interest.

  ‘Who’s asking?’ murmured Cimber.

  ‘I am Sarius Sarius, the finest boat builder and captain in Rayal.’

  ‘Is that so? Well, I have a respect for boat builders so let me put this nicely. Do you not see us standing in the company of a boat and would that not suggest we have found a boat?’

  Sarius Sarius shook his head disparagingly. ‘If this is the boat you have found, plainly the search is not yet over. Allow me to demonstrate.’ He picked up one of the oars laid out on the ground and proceeded to smash into the hull in a blistering rampage. Each blow left its mark on the oak hull until it was completely stoved in. When the oar snapped, he picked up another and continued the onslaught.

  The Immunes smirked despite themselves. Squillus inspected the damage. ‘You know the boat is supposed to float?’

  ‘Take a look around the port and what do you see?’ said Sarius Sarius panting. ‘Boats. Lots of boats. And none of them going anywhere. Because you need to do more than just float if you want to go out onto Lake Shikijoma these days.’ He chortled in a strange, morose laugh. ‘The boats that aren’t here are the ones that learnt the hard way.’

 
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