Penycher pit, p.14
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       Penycher Pit, p.14

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘I’m down to my last arrow,’ warned Turnstone from above.

  ‘We could do with it down here,’ Patrick called back.

  Turnstone’s head appeared over the edge of the roof, peering down at the Death Monk. ‘Yes, indeed.’ He trained the arrow upon him and drew back the bow-string. ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ Suddenly he spun round and shot the arrow high in the air in the opposite direction. ‘Oh, dear. I slipped.’ In the next moment, however, there was a distant shriek of agony. The arrow had pierced the neck of Martory in his treetop refuge. The shriek turned to a grotesque gargle as blood flooded the windpipe. Martory fell onto the ground and he frantically kicked and punched as a dreadwolf lunged upon him with its flesh tearing teeth fully bared.

  Turnstone turned back to Patrick and lowered the bow. ‘Apologies, my friend. Anyway, arrows would be little more than splinters for that giant.’ He rushed back to the driver’s seat and cracked his whip at the horses. ‘Time to leave!’

  The Executioner gave the last lady-in-waiting on the steps a frantic shove and climbed on board as the carriage began to move. He turned back to Patrick. ‘Die well, servant.’

  Patrick was left alone to face the Death Monk. He knew if he made a move for the ladder, his exposed back would be instantly split open by steel.

  ‘Patrick, run!’ screamed Melania distraught from the doorway as the carriage quickly gained momentum.

  The Death Monk chuckled and lifted back his hood to reveal a hideously scarred face tattooed in knives. ‘My name is Galanga,’ he growled.

  ‘I thought Death Monks cut out their tongues,’ Patrick murmured.

  ‘Mine grew back.’ The monk’s lips curled upwards in a murderous grin, displaying a fearsome set of sharpened teeth.

  Patrick noticed behind him two dreadwolfs bounding across the battlefield towards them. He rushed at Galanga on an instinct rather than a plan. He saw the monk’s eyes focus upon his neck and he dropped down low. Galanga’s blades wisped overhead too fast to see and Patrick sprung up, swiping Agrestis across his face. Galanga did not flinch, but blood began to run into his eyes, impairing his vision and preoccupying a hand as he tried to wipe the blood away. Patrick launched his axe in a powerful throw, embedding it Galanga’s forehead. Death was instantaneous.

  Patrick dived under the falling body just as the dreadwolfs arrived. The beasts sniffed around, nudging at Galanga with their snouts. The body, however, was too heavy to budge and they quickly lost interest, rushing away in the search for fresh victims.

  Patrick squeezed out from the enormous body, gasping from breath. He pried Agrestis loose and looked around for Turnstone’s carriage. The deep ruts upon the forest road made plain the direction it had gone. Patrick knew he would have to move fast if he wanted to catch it. He looked around the battlefield for transport, and locked eyes on the white stallion, Collusus, standing loyally beside the remains of its fallen master. He ran that way, negotiating a course amongst the bodies that littered the ground and the last pocket of soldiers and monks engaged in battle. An arrow struck him in the chest, sending him flying onto his back. For a moment he lay stunned, his vision blurred and he wondered if he was dying right there and then. He put his hand on the arrow-shaft protruding from his ribs and fought the temptation to wrench it free, aware that arrowheads inflicted even more damage coming out than they did going in. He raised himself onto his elbows and sought out the person who had fired it. He spotted the archer in a kneeling position just in time to take evasive action as another arrow was fired. It nicked his ear and he sprinted at the archer, noticing an arrow protruding from him as well, lodged in his throat. It was Lord Martory. The mauling from the dreadwolf had left his entire body bloody and torn and his face gripped by pain. But he was still functioning and he was set to fire again. Patrick threw Agrestis further than he had ever thrown it before it cut clean through the bow and lodged deep in Martory’s face. The blood streamed down as Martory crumpled dead to the ground.

  Patrick took back Agrestis and slung it over his shoulder. He swayed for a moment, almost collapsing, but gathered himself and ran to Collusus. He mounted its saddle and sent it into a gallop into the forest. His body immediately began to sag, the beautifully soft white mane under him fast turning red.

  *

  The Immunes arrived onto the battlefield a short time later. They moved carefully and with weapons drawn despite the only signs of life around them being a few groaning, mortally wounded soldiers.

  ‘We must be heading in the right direction,’ murmured Cimber. ‘In this quest, the dead are the road markers.’

  Kaen looked up at Merdel’s tower with the scaling ladders still upon it and nodded his understanding. ‘Two armies have fought over the Wizard Merdel’s stash of pink gold. The battlefield gives no clue as to who was the victor.’

  ‘No clue at all,’ said Squillus grimly. ‘Have you noticed that many of the bodies have been chewed up by some rather big teeth? It is as though death has had a feast.’

  Rhakotis was out front of the group and studied the bodies a little more closely than before. ‘You might be right. All dead bodies look the same to me.’ He squatted down and gestured for the others to join him in a huddle. ‘What I do know is that none of the blood spilt on this battlefield is yet ours. If we want to keep it that way, it may be time to go home.’

  ‘No chance,’ replied Cimber adamantly. ‘We haven’t been on a battlefield this bloody since the days we were fighting for Rome itself. So, possibly the prize at stake today is just as valuable.’

  Rhakotis glanced around the band of Immunes and the hard, determined stares confirmed there were no dissenting voices amongst them. ‘Very well.’ He turned to Kaen. ‘Tell me more about this place.’

  ‘Penycher Pit is to the east,’ replied Kaen, pointing, ‘and the village is a short distance through the forest to the west. Either the pink gold has been taken away from here by the battle’s survivors or all its suitors have killed each other in the attempt.’

  Rhakotis gestured to the empty cages. ‘There was a carriage with horses. We should follow it.’

  ‘We may find horses in the village,’ said Cimber. ‘But will there be time?’

  ‘Kaen, tell me, how many roads through Matholwich Forest are wide enough to take a carriage of size.’

  ‘There are only two in any condition. One goes to Londinium and the other to the coast.’

  Rhakotis pondered this a moment and sprung up. ‘They’re heading for the coast.’

  Chapter 20

  The Plea

  The carriage was tearing along the forest road.

  Turnstone and Merdel sat watchfully at the front, breathing the dust stirred up by the dozen charging horses ahead. Swords were resting on their laps and throwing knives were in wooden holders at their feet.

  Turnstone was gripping the reigns tightly in both hands, uneasy despite the relative straightness and smoothness of the road. It was Merdel that had him most on edge: the youthful colour that had returned to his beard and to his cheeks, the searing intensity of his eyes, and, more than anything, the intense body heat radiating off him - it was akin to sitting by a raging campfire, and it had brought a thick perspiration to Turnstone’s brow. Merdel was aware of his discomfort but chose not to raise the topic.

  The Executioner’s emergence from within the carriage would have come as a welcome diversion if only it had not been him. ‘Merdel, the Queen beckons you for an audience,’ the Executioner commanded from atop the carriage’s interior ladder.

  ‘This is not the time for conversation,’ interjected Turnstone curtly. ‘Our enemies will not be far behind us and they will be moving quickly.’

  ‘Then answer her as you are. Where are we going?’

  ‘To the coast.’

  ‘And how do we open the chest of pink gold? It is somehow locked.’

  ‘There is a secret latch,’ replied Merdel. ‘And it will remain secret until we are upon Sardania.

  ‘Queen Rachel require
s proof before she agrees to be taken along by you. She needs to see that you possess what you claim.’

  ‘I claim to possess the source of true power and destruction,’ snapped Merdel. ‘If you bother me, you’ll certainly see I possess what I claim.’

  Turnstone suddenly pulled back on the reigns to slow the carriage. ‘Speaking of trouble, there’s a horseman ahead.’

  Merdel looked that way. ‘Who is it?’

  ‘Egren, the Chieftain of Penycher.’

  Merdel looked some more. ‘So it is.’

  The Executioner stretched up on the ladder for a better view, but all he could see was a distant figure on the road ahead. ‘How can you tell?’ he murmured, doubtfully.

  The horseman, however, rode quickly towards them and it was not long before even the Executioner could see it was indeed the Chieftain - who he remembered mostly for his bit-part in his last execution.

  Egren’s horse had been ridden hard and it arrived at the carriage panting heavily. Egren himself was looking pale and exhausted. ‘Penycher Village is being laid to ruin,’ he said urgently to the two wizards. ‘You must help us. Dreadwolfs and Death Monks are rampaging, and your pit is the root of all this horror. I hired Patrick the Axeman to protect us, but he is now dead.’

  ‘Excellent,’ said the Executioner, but he was bumped off the ladder by Melania who hurried to the top.‘What happened to Patrick?’ she asked with a wavering voice.

  Egren softened his voice. ‘An arrow to his chest. He was able to avenge himself before he rode off into the forest.’

  ‘So, you didn’t see him die?’

  ‘From my position in the bushes I couldn’t see clearly, but the arrow was deep.’ He paused. ‘He fought bravely while others ran away.’

  Melania’s grip upon the ladder failed her, and she tumbled down into the lap of the Queen.

  Egren looked to Merdel to continue his plea. ‘There are others in Penycher who may still be saved. I must have some of your pink gold. I cannot return without having some hope of defending it.’

  ‘The pink gold is no longer theirs to give,’ hissed the Executioner, reclaiming his spot upon the ladder. ‘It is the Queen’s property now.’

  Queen Rachel, startled to her feet by Melania’s fall, stepped out of the carriage and walked up to the Chieftain. ‘Did you see what became of Zwigli and Martory?’ she murmured.

  ‘All of your lords are dead,’ Egren replied.

  The Queen turned to the Executioner, who was loyally following her down the carriage steps. ‘Executioner, you will assume command of my army in my absence. Return to Penycher with the chieftain and watch over my kingdom until my return.’

  The Executioner bowed deeply. ‘Yes, Your Highness.’

  ‘As you will no longer have the title of Executioner, you may have your name back. Lord Ledirre it is.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said the Executioner. ‘May I humbly request some of your pink gold to aid in the guardianship of your lands?’

  ‘I will trust you more if you do not have it,’ retorted the Queen dryly.

  ‘Wise decision,’ said Merdel. ‘The pink gold will soon turn to dust. If you don’t want your kingdom to do the same, you’d better learn to survive without it.’ He rolled up one of the sleeves of his robe to reveal an arm rutted with grotesque weeping ulcers. ‘Power comes with a price.’

  Both the Queen and the Executioner’s eyes widened with the shock of it.

  ‘At least, allow me to take one of your horses,’ the Executioner finally managed to blurt out.

  ‘If the Chieftain could catch up to us, we obviously need to be going faster,’ said Merdel. ‘So, we cannot spare a single horse. The Queen’s new general can walk to his army.’ He let the sleeve drop back down over his wrist. ‘Queen Rachel, if you do not wish to be left behind, you had better get back on board.’

  The Queen hurried to comply.

  The carriage departed without delay spraying an agitated Executioner with mud. He glared at the Chieftain upon his horse. ‘Make room,’ he demanded.

  Chapter 21

  The Dragon Tear

  Patrick rode into Pollio’s Garden more dead than alive, only able to guide Collusus with the weakest of nudges. Although his vision had deteriorated to little more than a blur, his sense of smell was able to confirm he was indeed in the right place. An intoxicating brew of a thousand different plants. There was nothing, however, to aid the untrained eye in distinguishing the life preserving from the life ending. All Patrick would be relying on was the experience garnered from a near fatal stab wound that had been treated by Pollio, back in the days when Matholwich Forest was still riven with bandits and killers rather than dreadwolfs – a far safer time. It was a purple cherry that had restored him to life, broke his fever and gave his body the strength to heal. He was trying to move in straight lines, to systematically cover the gardens from corner to corner in search of purple cherries. The gardens, however, were so dense, and the surrounding forests so uniformly featureless that Patrick would have struggled to orientate himself even with the full use of his faculties.

  After much toil, during which he ruefully felt Turnstone’s carriage slipping further and further away, he came to a plant of jagged dark leaves and sharp prickles that had luscious purple cherries growing upon it. These were smaller than the cherries he remembered, but looked similar enough. He leaned forward for a closer inspection and, as the last of his strength seeped away, he tumbled into the bush. He became ever more tangled up in the prickles as he tried to fight his way out. He finally gave up and instead pulled off one of the cherries. He fought the urge to eat it unquestioningly. He pressed it against his nostrils and sniffed for the slightest hint of the flavour of his memory. There wasn’t any odour at all. He contemplated giving it a quick lick.

  ‘Tell me something, Patrick,’ came a voice from above. ‘Are you visiting my gardens looking to hasten the end or to try clinging to life? I ask because at the moment it is not immediately apparent.’

  Patrick wriggled that way and looked up into the pale grey eyes of the tall, bearded, blue-eyed master gardener. ‘You remember me, Pollio?’ he murmured. ‘Perhaps, I should be flattered. But last time I was sliced open. And this time I’m not at my best, either.’

  Pollio was dressed warmly in bear fur and was standing with his arms folded and a look of disconsternation on his face. ‘Well, if you take a bite of that plum, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. It’s one of the more painful deaths you can experience in my garden.’

  ‘So it’s not a cherry,’ murmured Patrick, tossing it away.

  ‘No, it isn’t.’ Pollio held out his hand and when Patrick took it, he hauled him out of the prickles. ‘Now what can I do for you? I dare say I don’t have anything in season capable of treating an arrow in the chest. Certainly not the cherries you’re looking for.’

  ‘I just need something with a kick. Something to keep me going a little longer.’

  ‘The Dragon Tear will be your best bet. It brings feelings of euphoria and boundless energy. It will give you a bump alright.’

  ‘Sounds perfect. But I can’t pay for it right now.’

  ‘I guessed that. People with arrows in their chest don’t usually come with a lot of money in their pockets. At least, it will get you away from here before you die. Having to turn one of my former customers into fertiliser would not be at all appealing.’

  ‘Well, I graciously accept your hospitality.’

  ‘Then come this way.’

  They walked to a dark pocket of the garden dominated by weeds and rocks and it seemed very much as though it had succumbed to the forest it was encroaching upon. Pollio reached down between two rocks and emerged with a small mushroom. It bore a very pale tinge of blue. ‘I usually only recommend a nibble,’ Pollio said, ‘but in your case I’d suggest you eat the whole thing.’

  Patrick took it and swallowed the mushroom head without pause. ‘How long before it takes affect?’

  ‘Get on your horse and start
riding,’ said Pollio, brushing the dirt from his hands. ‘You’ll feel it soon enough. But be warned, many a soldier who has eaten the Dragon Tear mushroom has been undone by the confidence it brings. They become so fearless they think they are somehow impervious to sharpened steel and can dance around arrows.’

  Patrick’s eyes suddenly jolted open wide as the mushroom hit him like a punch. ‘I see.’ He ran to Collusus, bounding onto its back in one movement and had it galloping away towards the coast.

  Chapter 22

  The Fall of the Executioner

  Egren was keeping his mouth clamped shut, aware that if he started talking, his life might well be forfeited.

  The precedent had been set. What had the vagrant done to warrant the Executioner’s axe upon his neck? Wonder aloud if the pink gold had fallen from the sky? That was just the kind of musing the Chieftain himself could so easily drift into. And he could sense the Executioner’s bad mood. The general of a ghost army, no longer able to personally remove the heads of those that opposed or annoyed him. No doubt he would be ordering it done in numbers aplenty. But it wasn’t a general’s place to carry out executions with his own hand. A cause of vexation that might easily see him hacking off a head out of pure spite.

  Egren was also battling with himself to refrain from bringing his horse to a gallop on the return journey to Penycher. A bumpy journey was just as likely to spell his demise. Egren could only rue his predicament. He had rushed to intercept the Queen and the wizards and secure their assistance in the defence of his village, and all he had to show for it was a blood thirsty former executioner cuddling up to him from behind.

  His musings were interrupted by a group of horse riders emerging ahead. The Executioner’s hands stiffened upon his waist, for the Roman uniforms were unmistakable. So colourful, shiny and polished. The scourge of Britain had somehow inexplicably returned.

  ‘Roman outlaws,’ whispered the Executioner into Egren’s ear. ‘Stay very calm.’

  The riders were Rhakotis’s Immunes, and they broke off their tight formation to surround Egren and the Executioner and bring them to halt.

 
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