Penycher pit, p.11
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       Penycher Pit, p.11

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘And what danger in particular are you referring to?’ came a hard voice from behind. All eyes turned to see it was Rhakotis, returning with Dafius at his side and a map of Lake Shikijoma in hand.

  Sarius Sarius reflexively stepped back. He immediately realised that Rhakotis had been the missing piece from the group, that with his addition they truly were a formidable force. He realised if it was fear he was trying to instil in this group, he would need to work hard. The advantage he had was he himself had never experienced a fear to match it. ‘The last attack was only a few days ago. It was the hideous screams that drew the villagers to the bluff. The fishermen were keeping their boats close to the shore, chastened by the rumours of deadly creatures roaming the lake - wary but sceptical.’ He shook his head and shivered. ‘Flying fish have always been considered princes of water. Graceful creatures whose presence assure a captain of calm conditions. They are the only fish a seafarer can talk to and still consider himself sane. But the school that came upon the fleet on this day bore evil all the way to their gills. They shot into the fisherman like arrows - arrows with razor sharp teeth. Hundreds and hundreds of them. They came in waves of unquenchable fury. From the shore I watched the lake turn red. The bravest men of the village had ventured out in the quest to fill their baskets with fish and now it was only their blood returning home, washing up upon the shore.’

  ‘It is not the first time we have been warned of danger from the people of Rayal,’ said Rhakotis. ‘But it does not alter our travel plans.’

  Sarius Sarius shrugged. ‘The one thing it does do is explain why you can’t hire a captain and his boat. No one would expect to live through your voyage.’

  Rhakotis frowned. ‘We understand, and this boat that you’ve just destroyed is the only one we could afford to buy.’

  ‘You should thank me. You would have been swimming before long. Where did you intend to take this particular vessel anyway?’

  ‘The cliffs leading to Matholwich Forest.’

  Sarius Sarius chuckled. ‘That’s the far side of the lake. A very long way when there are fish that want to kill you.’ He stood up straight. ‘I have the strongest boat in the village. The Jellikoe. No oar will beat it up or even leave a mark. I will let you have it without cost so long as you agree to replace that map of yours with my own personal navigation.’

  ‘So, you’d like to come along? Is that because you are in a rush for the afterlife?’

  ‘In this place I feel I’m dead already. Without fish and wine what else is there?’

  ‘Spoken like a true Roman.’

  ‘I am happy that the best of us, the Immunes, would recognise it.’

  ‘Who said we were Immunes?’

  ‘No one. And no need to deny it either. I am old enough to remember the days before Britain was surrendered to the Saxons. I know who you are.’

  Rhakotis looked to the others and saw the smirks that came from encountering a kindred spirit. He nodded to Sarius Sarius. ‘You have made it hard for us to decline your offer. We would be happy to take your boat on our voyage. We leave at dawn.’

  Chapter 17

  The Warriors Arise

  The Queen’s Executioner entered the tent of young women with a candle sending out light through the misty night.

  The women were asleep on beds of hay, their outer-clothes folded in neat piles between them. With faces buried amidst hair and hay, identities were not easily recognised. Despite that, the Executioner was taking more time than was necessary, his eyes devouring each woman in turn, the candle coming so close that a fire was a genuine risk. When he came upon Melania, he stopped altogether, his yellow tinged eyes ceasing to blink.

  Melania stirred from her sleep, somehow sensing his presence. At the moment her eyes opened, he clamped a hand onto her mouth to suppress any sound she might make. ‘Are you afraid?’ he whispered. ‘The Queen’s Executioner is not a welcome sight to wake up to. I would announce myself with another title if there were one that I possessed. Unfortunately, I have given up my name in the service of the Queen. It is, therefore, the Queen’s Executioner that is visiting you now.’ He could not resist giving her petite figure another lustful glance. She had beautiful breasts and a waist just the way he liked it. He grinned lecherously. ‘My title, it must be said, doesn’t fully encapsulate what I do. The Queen asks me a question and I answer it. But it is rarely answered completely until a head is removed from its neck.’ He snickered, displaying a set of decaying teeth. ‘She has asked me a new question now. How many people must die before Penycher is tamed?’ He poured hot melted candle wax in a line across Melania’s neck, holding on tight as she tried to shake free. ‘It will take at least two more nice clean cuts like this.’

  Melania finally managed to slap his hand away. ‘Patrick came voluntarily back to camp,’ she said. ‘We will request an audience with the Queen in the morning.’

  The Executioner smirked. ‘And what can he possibly say? The Queen’s Sacrifice is dead. The Queen’s horses are missing. The forest is out of control. The Queen’s authority is undermined. So, executions will clearly be needed to restore the balance. An Irishman who refused to serve his lords in Penycher Pit will be the perfect choice. You may have escorted Patrick into the camp but the guards at his tent have been ordered to kill you if you try to lead him away again.’

  Melania went to say some more, but the Executioner grabbed her by the throat. ‘A long, slender neck,’ he hissed. ‘A sculpture that will be mine to sever. Losing your heart to the likes of the axeman, you must cut as softly as butter. Obviously being cosseted amidst the royal entourage left you vulnerable to the charms of a lesser man. I am tempted to take it upon myself to educate you in what a real man feels like.’ He stroked her thigh. ‘A head so pretty might even be worth keeping on the body while I do it.’

  Melania drew back repugnantly. ‘You’re sick.’

  ‘Don’t be like that, child,’ he whispered icily. ‘No one here will get in our way.’ He raised his voice, suspecting that as quiet as the tent was, the other young ladies-in-waiting had been roused from their sleep and were now lying in terrified silence. ‘It will be certain death to anyone who utters a word against us.’

  ‘They are all asleep,’ Melania implored.

  ‘Really?’ The Executioner chuckled. ‘So many sound sleepers. I am envious. My own sleep is all too often disturbed by the pitiful howls of those I have executed. They come to me night after night. But it is nothing more than cantankerous bellowing. If you ask me, such grotesque noises only vindicates my hewing off their heads in the first instance.’ He paused a moment. ‘There is another voice too, the sublimely pure voice of the Queen herself. She whispers to me during executions, guiding my hands on the axe. And she has whispered to me tonight. She said your name, Melania.’ He blew out the candle and backed away from the bed. ‘In the morning you’ll be mine.’ His footsteps could be heard departing the tent.

  Melania rubbed her stinging neck and stared blankly up at the roof. Her heart was pounding and the rush of blood screamed in her ears. There was muffled sobbing amongst the young women around her.

  *

  The long night had passed for Patrick in a small tent with a bed, a table and six guards standing watch outside. Patrick was pacing back and forth, the pink gold he had ingested surging through his body still. His senses were wildly alert and he heard from a long way off the approaching footsteps across soggy ground of the Queen’s camp.

  ‘By order of the Queen, I am bringing food for the prisoner,’ barked a voice.

  ‘Very well,’ replied the senior guard at the entrance.

  The tent flap flew open and Turnstone, the Queen’s Stewman, entered with a large bowl of stew in his hands. He looked over Patrick and smirked. ‘Sleep well?’

  ‘I have slept better,’ Patrick replied.

  ‘I had a long night myself. I was in the forest gathering ingredients for an upcoming feast.’ Turnstone put a bowl of stew down on the table. ‘Leftovers from the Q
ueen’s dinner last night.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Patrick. ‘Is it poisoned?’

  Turnstone smirked. ‘I thought you would have realised by now executions here come with an axe. An axe not too dissimilar to your own.’

  ‘You might have brought that with your stew.’

  ‘A little too big to pass as cutlery. But there is one particular ingredient of the stew you might find particularly appetising.’

  Patrick noticed something circular in shape sitting down in the stew. He picked it out and dabbed into the goblet of water beside it. As the stew washed off, glistening gold was revealed. Patrick’s eyes widened upon it.

  ‘Gold cones,’ said Turnstone. ‘You have been paid to protect the village. I would hire you now to protect the Queen.’

  Patrick frowned. ‘The Queen this morning will decide whether or not to have me executed.’

  ‘That is true but there is something else that is happening this morning. The Queen’s army will assault Merdel’s tower. The Queen believes the serpents and the wizard will prove no match for her weight of soldiers. She may be right too, but there is another force she has not reckoned on. A secret army biding its time for the right moment to attack. Like most of what is out there in Matholwich Forest, it is mysterious and dangerous.’

  ‘What army?’

  ‘Their uniform consists of black robes and they are silent killers - I mean, they cut out their own tongues. They are called Death Monks.’

  ‘You’re making that up.’

  ‘You’ll see them soon enough. They have the same hunger for pink gold as the Queen. They are rallying their forces out in the forest. They will wait for the Queen’s army to penetrate Merdel’s tower and then ambush them.’

  ‘That sounds ominous but shouldn’t you be telling the Queen about it rather than me?’

  Turnstone folded his arms. ‘There is someone else to consider. Merdel, sitting on his chest of pink gold, has obtained the one thing of worth that can outlive him: knowledge. He has been spending his days filling scrolls with ideas. Inventions, cures and methods. But if we don’t help him now, all will be lost. All will be wasted.’

  ‘If he surrenders his supply of pink gold to the Saxons, there won’t be anyone of a mind to bother him and no need to rescue him.’

  Turnstone shook his head adamantly. ‘The Saxon lords want blood and their army is ready to attack. Why would they show mercy when they are certain one man will not have a chance against them?’

  ‘You are also just one man. And, I must say, you do not talk much like a cook.’

  Turnstone smirked. ‘But what is a cook? Someone who is skilled at combining the natural elements in perfect blends to create something special.’

  Patrick eyed him probingly. ‘You’re a wizard?’

  Turnstone’s smirk widened. ‘Yes, I am. But there are different kinds. Merdel is a wizard of wisdom, whereas I am a wizard of war. My mission is to rescue Merdel from the tower and lead him to safety.’

  ‘Safety? Where could that be?’

  ‘There is an island across the oceans named Sardania. A place of great beauty. Pink gold is nothing more than a shadow compared to its sunsets. And it is a good place to live with its villages the very epitome of civilisation and culture. With the new ideas Merdel brings, it will be even better. You are welcome to join us. The old women of the monastery will take care of you. They are healers and you will be their revered guest.’

  Patrick shrugged sardonically. ‘What makes you think I will require healing?’

  ‘Pink gold is unstable - the strength it brings is fleeting and ends in sickness and death. Merdel saw you ingest some last night. The euphoria you feel is only the first stage of a horrible illness. Eventually, you will lose your hair and your teeth and your bones will turn to powder.’

  Patrick swallowed hard. ‘Then the Brotherhood of Pink Gold is also doomed.’

  ‘Yes, but they are not invited to Sardania. Their fate is sealed. The Queen, however, can wait in Sardania for the scourge to run its course. When all the warriors fuelled by pink gold are gone, she will be able to return to Glywysing to be its queen again.’

  Patrick mulled over what Turnstone had said, looking over the gold coin in his fingers. ‘If Sardania is my only chance to live, why would you bother paying for my services in gold?’

  ‘Health is not a currency for trade. To rescue a queen, gold coin is a fair payment.’

  ‘If she knows nothing of the things you have said, she will not come willingly. Kidnap will be a more accurate description of what I will have to do.’

  Turnstone nodded. ‘That is true. She is meeting the lords of Penycher now before the day’s battle begins and then she will give you an opportunity to beg for your life. How peculiar considering you will be the only one who will be able to save her. Escort her to Merdel’s tower. You will find me there with horses and carriage.’

  Patrick glared incredulously. ‘You would have me abduct the queen and take her to the place where her army will be converging?’

  Turnstone grinned and slapped him on the arm. ‘Now you understand why I am paying you in gold. The good kind. Now I must go. There is still much to be done.’ He started for the entrance. ‘Enjoy my stew but be careful you don’t break your teeth on its main ingredient.’

  Patrick watched him leave the tent and turned his attention to the stew. He tipped it out onto the table and poured the goblet out over it. Ten pieces of gold were revealed within.

  *

  The Queen’s soldiers were gathered in their hundreds just beyond the camp on the banks of a gently flowing stream, its position chosen for its relatively clean waters upstream of Penycher Pit. The soldiers were assembled on horseback and on foot. Having marched through Matholwich Forest unscathed, they were relaxed and confident. They had brought with them carriages laden with siege equipment, and they were heavily armed with swords, spears and bows.

  The lords of Penycher Pit rode towards them through the morning fog. Lord Zwingli, the army’s general, was waiting to receive them atop his white stallion, Collusus. Zwingli and Martory came together and exchanged pleasantries.

  Zwingli then straightened up on his horse to project his voice to all corners of his army. ‘Now that we are all assembled, the battle can begin. The Queen would have the Brotherhood of Pink Gold kneel before her and pledge loyalty. But she cannot ask this currently, for she has no one to match them in battle should they refuse. The lords of Penycher Pit, however, have this morning knelt before the Queen and sworn their undying loyalty and so now it is time to arm them with pink gold.’ He gestured to Martory and the other lords beside him. ‘We need to give them the power to defend the Queen’s honour and so the Wizard Merdel must die. The scale of our army may not reflect the numbers of our enemy but it does attest to the gravity of our purpose. If we fail today, there is every chance the Kingdom of Glywysing will fall. So, we must fight like we have never fought before.’ He could see that his soldiers were listening attentively, their strong bodies and gleaming swords a sight to behold. He raised his sword boldly into the air. ‘Serpents and wizards will be stricken before us, and whoever else that dares interfere with our purpose.’

  The army cheered excitedly. Orders were given and the march for Merdel’s tower began.

  *

  The Death Monks were sitting cross-legged in circles three deep with a fire in the centre. They were drinking blood wine from goblets and chanting in deep resonant voices. Few words were spoken, not least because many of the Death Monks had cut out their tongues as evidence of their devotion. On the walls of the cave there were charcoal sketches of Penycher and Merdel’s tower. Swords were piled underneath in masses of superbly sharpened steel.

  One of the monks suddenly sprung to his feet and threw off his robes to reveal his naked body, riddled with scars and covered in tattoos of skulls. He hissed and flexed his chest muscles and lustfully emptied his goblet of blood wine out over his face. The monks sitting before him began pounding their
heads into closed fists in an ecstatic frenzy. The noise reverberated off the cave walls in a hideous cacophony.

  The naked monk turned on the wall sketches, punching them ferociously until his knuckles were split open. He dabbed his fingers into the blood and added to the sketches on the walls skulls just like those tattooed upon him.

  Chapter 18

  The Journey to the Cave

  It was a still morning and the fish weren’t biting – a relief for the crew of the Jellikoe, for in these waters it was human flesh the fish craved.

  The sun had grown from a dark orange snippet on the horizon when the boat first set out from Rayal to now be well into the sky and starting to deliver its warmth. The cliffs of Lake Shikijoma’s northern end were steadily taking form beyond the bow, marking the final stage of the journey. The Immunes were rowing in a fast, unrelenting rhythm that way.

  ‘You have rowed well,’ called out Sarius Sarius to the Immunes, gripping the till tightly in the Jellikoe’s stern. ‘But even on a calm day such as this, there will be powerful currents bouncing off the cliffs, so if you wish to rest before we encounter them, there would be no shame in it; after all, you have already covered the distance twice as fast as any crew that has launched onto Lake Shikijoma.’

  Rhakotis looked up from his oar. ‘Twice as fast is only barely enough for our liking. If we are to die today, it will be at speed.’

  ‘Very well,’ murmured Sarius Sarius. ‘Having come this far, I think I have shown a willingness to sacrifice my own life for your cause. What is troubling me, however, is I do not know what your cause is.’

  ‘What is troubling me,’ snapped Kaen, ‘is that you want to know.’

  ‘Let’s tell him,’ said Cimber breathlessly. ‘As tempting as it may be, we can’t keep stupidity all to ourselves.’

 
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