Penycher pit, p.12
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       Penycher Pit, p.12

           Stuart Parker
 
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  Mulchis was paying little heed to what was being said, preoccupied with the imposing cliffs ahead; he pointed an excited finger at the steepest, sheerest section. ‘The cave is there!’

  ‘How do you know?’ snapped Squillus. ‘All that ugly rock looks the same.’

  ‘I know because looking that way gives me the same feeling as last time with Nero and Valitino. The feeling that somebody is about to die.’

  Rhakotis glared at him ruefully and turned to Sarius Sarius. ‘We are going to climb that cliff. We are not going to give you an explanation of our purpose but we will at least offer you choices. You can tie up your vessel and wait for three days while we pursue our mission. Or you can return to Rayal without delay, testing your luck alone against the schools of killer fish that have spooked you.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘Or you can come with us.’

  Sarius Sarius did not need to think. ‘Of course, I want to accompany you.’ He turned to Mulchis. ‘Now make clear exactly which part of the cliff we are to go to and I will steer us there.’

  The instructions were given and it wasn’t long before Sarius Sarius had successfully navigated the swirling currents to have the Jellikoe touching upon the base of the cliff. Rhakotis was the first to disembark, landing with sure feet on an uneven platform of slippery rock just above the waterline. ‘Everyone out,’ he said. ‘We’ll pull the boat up here. And be careful. Having guided us through treacherous waters, even putting a scratch in its hull might upset the gods that have obviously taken a shine to it.’

  ‘Perhaps it is us the gods have taken a shine to,’ said Squillus, easing himself out of the boat.

  ‘I’m not one of those generals that promise the favours of gods,’ said Rhakotis. ‘My only pledge is that if you are in my army, you won’t die alone.’ He helped Dafius out of the boat. ‘You too must decide if you wish to accompany us. It will be too late halfway up the cliff to have a change of heart.’

  Dafius looked up the cliff face. ‘I’ll go first.’

  Rhakotis smirked and turned to Mulchis. ‘You’re going with her. Take the route you remember, not the most scenic.’

  Mulchis rushed a piece of mushroom into his mouth. ‘Yes, General.’

  The band of Immunes hauled the boat up the sharply contorted rock to the very base of the cliff and set about strapping to their backs and legs the weapons they were seeking to replace. Rhakotis secured three swords to his back and returned his gaze to Mulchis and Dafius at the cliff face. He was startled to see they had already commenced their ascent. They were making swift progress along a deep fissure, stretching high up into the cliff.

  Rhakotis nodded, impressed. ‘Centurions again.’

  *

  ‘Be careful,’ Mulchis cried back at Dafius, clinging to the cliff face at a dizzying height. ‘The entrance to the cave is a nasty overhang. Its sheer slippery polished rock demanding full attention and commitment and not too much care, for hesitation will be fatal. I suppose it’s why I chose it.’ He gazed out over Lake Shikijoma before harnessing his concentration. ‘Watch carefully what I do. If I slip, I won’t get a second chance. You’ll be the second chance.’

  Dafius wedged her feet into firm footholds in the rock and glanced about to satisfy herself there was no alternative course. She had to concede there wasn’t. ‘Alright, I’m looking.’

  Mulchis gritted his teeth and sprung up off the cliff. He moved diagonally through the air, one hand slapping the base of the overhang to maintain his momentum and the other hand reaching across to catch the lip of the cave in its fingertips. He clung on desperately, absorbing the momentum that threatened to rip his handhold away. Dangling over oblivion, he waited for stillness to come to his body before sending his other hand to the ledge. He paused again, feeling the rhythm of the cold winds buffeting the cliff. He took in a lungful of air and propelled himself upward, digging his elbows into the rock like they were posts. He came eye to eye with the flagon of wine he had left behind the last time in readiness for this exact moment. The flagon’s eye had been painstakingly engraved by a Syrian craftsman and was meant to represent the approval of the gods. Mulchis pulled off the lid with his mouth and took as big a draft as he could manage whilst keeping his elbows locked in place. The wine was the perfect blend of sweet and bitter.

  ‘That’s how you do it,’ he called out to Dafius.

  He gazed further into the cave to see that everything else was also as he had left it. There was a rope ladder folded in a neat pile, there were tall clay pots lining the walls, and there were more flagons of wine. Mulchis wiggled further into the cave and rolled onto his back; he took the flagon and poured it onto his face, catching some of the wine in his mouth and enjoying how the rest washed from his cheeks the dirt, perspiration and sting of wind burn.

  ‘Mulchis? Is it really you?’

  The voice came from the darkness in the back of the cave and caused Mulchis to choke on what little wine was left in his mouth. He spun clumsily onto his hands and knees to see a thin silhouette moving towards him. He reached instinctively for his dagger, trying to make out the features of the face. All he could register, however, were the voice and body shape being female, unthreatening and somehow familiar.

  ‘Who is it?’ he said quietly.

  ‘Cokael.’

  ‘Cokael?’

  The young woman could hold herself back no more and dived upon him with a tight embrace. ‘I’m so glad to see you. At first when I heard your approach I thought you were a dreadwolf. They are the most hideous creatures I have ever seen.’

  Mulchis returned her embrace though the difficult climb had weakened his grip. ‘They are nearby?’

  ‘One was stalking me in the forest. I climbed a tree to flee it, but with its huge claws it started to cut the tree down. Then inexplicably it left. From the tree-top I could see Lake Shikijoma was near and so I came here seeking shelter.’

  ‘And you managed to reach here by climbing down? I considered that to be impossible’

  ‘I had no choice but to try.’

  ‘So, how did we become separated? And where is Nero?’

  Cokael’s voice became tremulous. ‘Nero and I took a moment to be alone. We were intending to catch up with you at Pollio’s Garden.’ She paused. ‘But the storm came. And there are many dangers in the forest. Both man and beast.’

  Mulchis frowned gravely. ‘Nero didn’t make it?’

  ‘I don’t think so. Nor Valitino. It’s a miracle that I am still alive.’

  ‘Hopefully your good luck rubs off on us. All that trouble to hide our weapons and now we are here to take them right back. Who would have guessed?’

  ‘Mulchis, what are you doing?’ called out Dafius impatiently from the cliff face. ‘I hear voices. Are you talking to yourself?’

  ‘A friend has been waiting for us,’ Mulchis shouted back. ‘I’m throwing you a rope now.’ He picked up the rope ladder and tested the integrity of the knots, particularly those anchoring it to the wall, before launching it over the cliff’s edge. It soon pulled tight under Dafius’s weight. Dafius emerged at the top of the rope and gave the cave a quick glance over, her eyes settling on Cokael. ‘You must be the friend.’

  Cokael nodded. ‘My name is Cokael.’

  ‘I’m Dafius.’

  Mulchis pointed Dafius to one of the large clay pots at the back of the cave. ‘Inside that pot is your father’s ornaments and weapons. You are their inheritor.’

  Dafius stared at the pot a long moment. ‘I see.’

  ‘There is also food and drink. We did not keep much water, for we were concerned it might spoil. But there is plenty of good wine. Shall I pour you a cup?’

  Dafius nodded and climbed all the way off the ladder.

  The remainder of the Immunes followed in quick succession. Rhakotis was last, murmuring in a gravel voice, ‘Mulchis, that leap of yours was the act of someone quite deranged.’

  Mulchis, with a cup of wine in hand, merely shrugged. ‘I’ve done it a few times now. I’m getting
used to it.’

  Rhakotis lingered at the cave entrance, peering up at the remainder of the cliff face to be traversed. ‘How do you rate the rest of the climb?’

  ‘Getting to the top of the cliff we can manage,’ said Mulchis. ‘From there, however, it might not be the most pleasant of walks. Cokael, the betrothed of Nero, sought refuge here. She says there was a dreadwolf stalking her, a very big one.’

  Rhakotis glanced her way. Even from afar he could see the sadness in her eyes. ‘Nero would have been a good man to have here now,’ he said softly.

  ‘Mulchis,’ cried Squillus from beside one of the pots, a gleaming gold armband in hand, ‘this is far shinier than when I handed it over for safekeeping. Is everything else in this pot mine? It is hard to tell. Decades of bloody campaigns had left them looking very much the worse for wear and yet now it as though my past has been polished anew.’

  ‘You’ll find your blades are sharpened as well. I knew that if we returned to this cave it was because miraculously there was a cause worth fighting for. Something to live and die for. I spent long nights polishing armour wondering what that might be.’

  Squillus slipped the band on. ‘You’ve done well.’

  ‘Alright,’ said Rhakotis, raising his voice to address everyone. ‘Take only what you need. The cave will be our rallying point. If we are dispersed and live to talk about it, here is where we will come. We leave for Penycher in a few moments.’

  Mulchis pointed to one of the pots. ‘That one is yours, Rhakotis. It cost me countless blisters removing the blood and grime from the gold of your ornamentation.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Rhakotis as he went to it expectantly. ‘And do you have something for Kaen?’

  Mulchis walked to a cluster of pots located in a dark corner of the cave. ‘These belonged to Nero. Hopefully you are only borrowing them.’

  Kaen removed two of the lids and gazed inside at the weapons and neatly folded uniforms of a Roman centurion. ‘I would be honoured,’ he murmured. ‘However, there is something to be said for me remaining dressed as I am, a Mercian. I could scout ahead unmolested, report back on the state of events in Penycher.’

  ‘Never mind that,’ replied Rhakotis forthrightly. ‘Creeping around the shadows with plots and schemes is what poisoned the Empire. It will not rise again by doing more of the same.’ He slapped him hard on the arm. ‘We attack.’

  Chapter 19

  The Battle for Merdel’s Tower

  The Queen’s army had surrounded the tower’s moat and the archers were the first to strike, darkening the sky with arrows.

  From the platform at the top of the tower, Merdel had been watching with an easy curiosity the forces gather, and as the arrows bore down, he retreated behind the thick walls of the tower’s interior. The arrows bounced off them as harmlessly as rain drops. For Lord Zwingli, overseeing the siege from upon Collusus, the result was nonetheless encouraging: whatever pink gold could do for a wizard, deflecting arrows was not one of them. It told him Merdel could be killed. And Zwingli had a whole army to do it. He turned to the messenger standing at attention by his side ready to receive instructions. ‘Move the scaling ladders into position on all sides. Foot-soldiers are to advance upon them to the tower.’

  ‘Yes, Sire,’ said the messenger, a crack in his voice betraying the tension of what was to come. A moat with man-eating serpents was a battlefield conjured in a nightmare. The messenger relaxed his lips and blew the one short retort upon his brass and ivory horn to signal the next phase of the attack. The scaling ladders brought forward to the tower had been made as long as physically possible so as to reach high above the moat. There were four in all and with large teams of soldiers behind them touched upon the tower on different sides at exactly the same moment. The soldiers that poured onto them had removed their body armour, desperate to make the ascent as quickly as possible. Handpicked for their agility and speed, they made rapid progress. The moat remained still as they moved out over it - the menacing black waters not accepting even a glint from the sun beaming down from the freshly woken sky.

  The archers’ barage continued upon the tower with unerring accuracy, not a single arrow straying near the advancing soldiers. It was an army well used to breaching forts, its coordination precise and its movement methodical and relentless. The leading soldiers upon the ladders were soon in range for their grappling hooks. But with their eyes focussed upon the top of the tower, they did not immediately see the black liquid running down the ladders towards them. It was quietly being poured out from the highest of the tower’s narrow slit-windows, and was as black as the moat below.

  ‘Oil!’ came a cry from amongst the soldiers, but there was nothing to be done, the ladders too packed for the soldiers to reverse. The oil quickly reached their hands and feert and they began to slip. And as they fell, the ladders started to shake and quiver and that sent more soldiers tumbling down. The serpents lurking within the moat burst to life, furiously churning up the waters into fountains of red. Amidst hideous screams, the soldiers were being torn to pieces. And the serpents were not pausing to consume what their jaws had taken. It was death without hunger.

  The soldiers around the moat watched on in horror, tossing down ropes for those frantically swimming towards the moat’s side walls. Some made it, but mostly they didn’t. The moat’s waters had changed to an even darker shade of black as the blood ran freely. The archers were frustratedly poised to fire their arrows, the serpents coming to the surface only as fleeting glimpses of slimy grey bodies and viscious sets of flesh-tearing teeth.

  Zwingli grimly watched over the mayhem from abreast his stallion, remaining at the rear of the siege force. Martory rode up beside him with a heavy frown. ‘A nasty business.’

  ‘Any death in the name of the Queen should be considered glorious,’ replied Zwingli curtly.

  ‘I know some people who might disagree with you right about now.’

  Zwingli turned to his messenger. ‘Send the next wave at once.’

  ‘Up the ladders, My Lord?’ queried the messenger unable to contain his reservation.

  ‘Unless they want to swim to the tower, yes. Tell them to carry chains. That will prevent slippage.’

  The messenger bowed deeply and hurried away to pass on the order.

  ‘Of course,’ continued Martory to Zwingli, ‘if the wizard decides to light the oil, the chains won’t help much. I question whether the wizard knows much about magic, but I am ssure he understands the combination of oil and fire.’

  ‘You’re probably right, but the question is how hard are we prepared to fight to win this battle? Digging deeper and deeper in that muddy pit of yours is a complete waste of time. Now you’ll see how true Saxons fight.’

  Martory felt the slight and if Zwingli hadn’t represented the Queen, he would have sliced his head off right there and then. He clutched the necklace encrusted with a pebble of pink gold under his shirt, knowing that with its power he could cut swathes through Zwingli and his men. Numbers would barely be a consideration. It was the seductive self-assurrance that he was sure all the Brotherhood of Pink Gold possessed. The Queen’s Sacrifice had been killed and the Queen’s army was being routed at the hands of a single wizard. The Brotherhood of Pink Gold would read defeat on this battlefield as a loss of legitimacy. Lord Volte was the one that concerned Martory the most. He had been dangerously ambitious even before pulling out a fist-size piece of pink gold from Penycher Pit, back in the early days - the biggest piece found by a Saxon lord. Volte would see that as evidence enough of his right to be king. The Queen’s failure here would persuade the Brotherhood of his claim. Martory would die before he allowed Volte to become ruler. So, the battle against the wizard simply had to be won. Martory turned to Zwingli and gnarled, ‘I’m watching. We may need a grave as deep as Penycher Pit for all the soldiers we lose. But I’m watching.’

  *

  The screams of dying soldiers could be heard from the Queen’s camp. A paleness was noticeable about th
e Queen, even beyond the layers of white foundation she used to conceal the age and blotchiness of her skin. She was sitting in her superbly crafted, jewel-encrusted throne in her large, luxuriously furnished tent, her attention fluttering between her Executioner and the man he was requesting to decaptitate before her: Patrick the Axeman.

  ‘Your army is at this very moment fighting to confirm your right to rule Glywysing,’ said the Queen’s Executioner, standing erect before her, his hair and beard oiled black and his eyes a lifeless grey. ‘Until news of its victory arrives, the best we can do is to secure the home ground, to hasten the death of those who are not loyal enough to surrender their lives for you.’

  ‘Are you accusing this man of cowardice?’ queried Queen Rachel dubiously, not seeing a trace of fear in Patrick despite his life having become an open question and the guards around him ensuring any sentence would be swiftly carried out.

  ‘Let’s see if he trembles when his neck is under my axe,’ replied the Executioner. ‘For now, it is enough to decree it the only fate he deserves.’

  ‘Are you certain he would not die for me? After all, I do not recall ordering him to do so.’

  The Executioner pursed his lips frustratedly. She was going to make him earn this one. Probably she was just happy for the distraction, to take her mind off the battle raging just beyond the village. No matter, who was he to do anything but to comply with her wishers? He retained his patient, measured tone of voice: ‘When your Sacrifice and your most cherished horses have failed to return from a task, the guide must be held accountable. Stories of giant wolves will simply not do.’ He gestured disdainfully at Patrick. ‘The man does not have a mark on him. Especially for your poor, innocent horses, there should have been resistance.’

  The Executioner was striking a nerve, for the Queen was missing her horses badly. ‘He has a point,’ she said bluntly at Patrick. ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’

  Patrick was trying to decipher from her voice whether she had already made up her mind as to his fate. Should he invest thought in choosing his words well or focus his attention on how to kill his way out of the tent? Certainly, his pledge to Turnstone to protect the Queen would dissolve if she granted his execution. For that reason, words still had a place in the moment.

 
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