Penycher pit, p.15
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       Penycher Pit, p.15

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘Two men sharing a horse in this forest likely have a story to tell,’ voiced Rhakotis, leaning forward on his chestnut horse to examine them. ‘And if it involves a carriage full of pink gold, we would like to hear about it.’

  ‘We don’t know anything about such things,’ replied the Executioner quickly. ‘We are simple farmers.’

  Kaen frowned and declared, ‘The one at the front is Egren, Chieftain of Penycher. I am certain of it. He has often come to my village for meetings.’

  Rhakotis studied Egren for a long moment and smiled. ‘Then not just a simple farmer. You have a reputation for being one of the best.’

  Egren shrugged humbly. Kaen was so adamant, there was no point trying to deny who he was. ‘My farming can fortify the village against hunger, but it is not so effective against evil.’

  ‘We ventured into your village to get these horses, so I understand what you’re talking about,’ said Rhakotis. ‘The villagers were offering some resistance, at least. There were two brothers who were particularly willing.’

  ‘I know who you are referring to.’

  ‘Anyway, there is a village where all the farmers are adept with a blade - my village. You and everyone else from Penycher will be welcome to join us until the danger has subsided.’

  ‘We have to get back to Penycher immediately,’ snapped the Executioner.

  Rhakotis returned his glare. ‘You do not look like a farmer. And I daresay you are not from Penycher. So you can do whatever you please. Only, it will be on foot. The chieftain is staying with us.’

  ‘You cannot expect me to walk in this forest. That is almost certain death.’

  Rhakotis pointed his sword at him. ‘Your only other option is to die right now.’

  The Executioner glanced around the Immunes and saw nothing but deadly stares. He dropped down off the horse and was again promptly sprayed with mud as the Immunes charged away.

  ‘Apologies for leaving your friend behind,’ Rhakotis called out to Egren. ‘I didn’t much like the look of him.’

  ‘He isn’t my friend,’ Egren replied.

  ‘I can believe that. A man with the body temperature of a corpse.’

  ‘I recognise these horses from the Queen’s camp. You really have been to Penycher.’

  ‘I spoke the truth about that and also about the offer of refuge.

  ‘What is the name of your village?’

  ‘You’ll find out when it’s time. Now, tell us how far away is the carriage of pink gold?’

  ‘Not far enough away for your own good, I fear.’

  Rhakotis bent down low to extract more speed out of his colt. ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.’

  *

  The Executioner was crouching behind a tree, idly plucking out grass with one hand and holding a knife in the other. He had no intention of walking back to Penycher.

  It was not a long wait before there came the pounding of an oncoming horse. The Executioner relaxed his knife arm and readied himself for the throw. He wasn’t of a mind to check who the rider was. Man or woman, young or old. He was going to take the horse and he wasn’t going to ask permission.

  The horse and rider approached at speed and the Executioner sprung up, set to throw his knife, and he could not believe his luck: with an arrow protruding from his chest, just as the Chieftain had described, it was Patrick the Axeman. He was slumped in his saddle, looking very much worse for wear. But there was life enough to end, a priceless opportunity for revenge presenting itself. The Executioner stepped forward to the edge of the road and as Patrick came side on, he made the throw. He lost some of his accuracy for the extra force he put into it, but the knife still plunged into Patrick’s side, and sent him tumbling off the horse. Patrick bounced across the road and finished up face down and motionless in the roadside grass, the knife still wedged between his ribs.

  The Executioner walked over to him, looking for signs of life - if the fall had pushed the arrow deeper into his chest, then surely he would be stone dead. He couldn’t see it, but the knife he had thrown was still sticking out of Patrick’s side. He was going to pluck it out and slit his throat but noticed a better option: Agrestis strapped to Patrick’s back. The Executioner pulled the axe free, toyed with the handle until it was resting comfortably in his hands and raised the axehead over Patrick’s neck. ‘The moment of your execution has arrived,’ he rejoiced. ‘What pleases me most is that it will be done with your own axe.’

  Patrick suddenly spun round, lifting himself up with a grip on the Executioner’s belt and drove the arrowhead into the Executioner’s throat. The Executioner made a feeble attempt to counter strike with Agrestis but his body had lost its strength and he collapsed onto his knees, blood spurting freely from the wound. Gargling and gasping, he yanked the arrowhead away and tried desperately to compress his slit throat. Patrick pushed him over and laboured back to Collusus. He was dizzy and needed to channel all his strength to get himself back up onto the saddle. Collusus was ready for him, breaking into a gallop with the merest of touches. Patrick pulled the knife from his side and tossed it away.

  Chapter 23

  The Escape

  The leper colony had been forged from suffering and it announced itself with the sweetly pungent smell of rotting flesh and death.

  Turnstone had paid the lepers well to watch over his longboat moored to the end of the primitive village jetty. And it appeared they had performed their task well. The vessel was a solid, wooden plank construction and had sails and oars for propulsion. It was capable of venturing across oceans with heavy loads and it looked every bit ready for the long journey to Sardania.

  The narrowness and poor condition of the murky, muddy road into the village, compelled Turnstone to move the carriage along at a crawl – that and the risk of running over the crippled lepers loitering about them. As wretched as their bodies were, the lepers were still capable of killing unwelcome visitors in the most sadistic of ways, and this combined with their grotesque sickness is what made Leprosy Cove the most feared corner of all Matholwich Forest. And added to that, Turnstone suspected the money he had paid them for this safe passage had mostly been spent on weapons. So, best not to upset them.

  Finally reaching the base of the jetty, Turnstone drew the carriage to a halt. He climbed up onto the carriage roof and used its height to survey the ocean beyond the cove. The stiff onshore wind was whipping up whitecaps to the horizon. ‘It’s going to be a bumpy oopening to the journey,’ he voiced down to Merdel. ‘I will have to apologise in advance, for no doubt the Queen and her entourage will be wretching before long.’

  Merdel gave the longboat a disparaging glance. ‘Amongst my scrolls is a new design for a boat that will be lighter, stronger and faster than anything currently on the water.’

  ‘How nice. Unfortunately, a militant leper colony is not the best place to build it. Especially with marauding armies in pursuit.’ Turnstone climbed down from the carriage. ‘I will fetch a cart to transfer the chest onto our boat with. If the Queen would like to intermingle with her subjects, I will leave that with you to arrange.’

  Merdel sneered and leaned into the opening behind him. ‘We are here, Your Highness.’

  Queen Rachel was peering out the window, mortified by the rows of decrepit shacks that made up the village. ‘Is this place what I think it is?’ she cried.

  ‘If you mean, is this place a part of your kindgom, yes it is,’ replied Merdel. ‘And let me say, the residents here might be rotting on the surface, but their insides are much purer than the lords you trust with your armies.’

  ‘The lords that I trust? Only those who have died in pursuit of my pink gold do I trust. And those that have got their hands on their own pink gold must die so that I can trust them too. What does that tell you about the nautre of pink gold?’

  ‘All that matters to me at the moment is that it’s heavy,’ said Merdel and turned away.

  The Queen continued to stare in horror out the window.

 
Turnstone arrived quickly back at the carriage with a donkey and a cart. ‘Alright, let’s load the chest. The lepers are keeping their distance, but once they realise they are in the company of the queen that banished them to this forsaken place, that might change, that might change very quickly indeed.’

  *

  Astride the indefatigable Collusus, Patrick burst into Leper’s Cove from the forest and headed for the jetty. He could see the shadowy figures of the lepers peering out from their huts at this latest incursion into their village. For the lepers, the only difference this time was that they hadn’t been paid. Being the living dead, they made for a fearless enemy. The bow and arrow was their weapon of choice, and from their doors and windows they began to fire.

  Patrick ducked down low as arrows hissed by and he felt an anger surging through him: he had had enough of arrows for one day. Remaining exposed on the village path was certain death and so he charged to the nearest shack, throwing himself through the wall and plunged Agrestis into the leper within. From there he began hacking his way from shack to shack, cutting through walls and lepers with equal intensity. By the time he reached the jetty, he was pale and blood soaked and drew a scream of horror from one of the Queen’s attendants inside the carriage. Melania rushed to grab him as he started to collapse. ‘Patrick, you made it!’

  ‘Don’t touch me,’ Patrick murmured. ‘I’m covered in leper blood.’

  ‘Don’t flatter yourself, much of it is yours.’ Melania pressed her lips tightly against his. ‘And besides, we’re going to an island of cures.’ She looked for the arrow wound in his chest and quickly found it. ‘You’re going to need it,’ she added.

  ‘Who are you kissing?’ barked Queen Rachel, stepping down from the carriage.

  ‘It’s Patrick,’ replied Melania

  ‘Really?’ Queen Rachel looked him up and down with a frown. ‘He looks terrible. But I suppose that’s what a survivor from Penycher would look like.’

  Turnstone finished loading the chest onto the longboat and came too. ‘Hello, Patrick. For a moment there I thought you were one of the afflicted villagers.’

  ‘The villagers are trying to kill me,’ Patrick gnarled.

  ‘They don’t take kindly to strangers. That’s precisely why I chose this place.’ Turnstone observed the villagers massing further along the road with weapons and walking canes. ‘They don’t look very happy. Perhaps, I should introduce you to them.’

  ‘That wouldn’t be a good idea. We’ve already met.’

  Turnstone frowned. ‘Are you talking about the blood on your axe?’

  ‘They started it.’

  ‘Come on, then.’ Turnstone slung Patrick’s arm over his shoulder. ‘Let’s get you on board.’ He called out to Queen Rachel and her attendants, ‘Unless you want to experience the hospitality of the locals, you’d best follow me.’

  Moments later the longboat pulled away from the jetty with all on board and Merdel and Turnstone at the oars. The powerful strokes of the wizards had the boat moving away more quickly than the villagers anticipated. The arrows that filled the air had the accuracy but not the range to reach the longboat, dropping innocuoulsy into the waters of the cove. Pushing through the throng of villagers, however, was a group of tall, broad shouldered figures dressed in long dark robes, moving with speed and intent. They hurried to the end of the jetty where they stared at the departing longboat for a protracted moment before turning their attention to two canoes tied up to the side. They huddle together in a brief discussion before throwing off their robes to reveal the uniforms of the Roman centurian underneath - it was Rhakotis and the Immunes.

  ‘Our enemy are strong rowers,’ Rhakotis declared to his soldiers. ‘And they are wizards as well. But we are the Immunes. So, let’s go catch them.’

  The Immunes cheered and hurried to the canoes, which sunk low in the water with the weight of their hulking bodies. Cimber, Mulchis, Sarius Sarius and Kaen took the lead boat while Dafius and Cokael and the remainder of the band joined Rhakotis.

  ‘You can stay behind if you’d like to,’ said Rhakotis to Egren, the last of their group still on the jetty. ‘This is not your fight.’

  ‘You mean, stay on a jetty full of agitated lepers?’ muttered the Chieftain incredulously. ‘I hardly think so.’

  He joined Cimber’s canoe and was thrown onto his backside as it pulled away at speed. The Immunes in both canoes immediately showed themselves to be accomplished oarsmen, able to strike a frenetic rhythm and maintain it in perfect unison. The longboat quickly grew closer and closer.

  ‘Row harder,’ Rhakotis cried through gritted teeth. ‘We must catch them before they leave the cove. In the rougher waters of open sea, we will lose the advantage.’

  The oarsmen responded with an extra heavy stroke that had their canoes skimming across the water.

  ‘This is better,’ said Rhakotis. ‘It has been a long journey to make it this far. And all that is left is one short moment. Only desire will take us there. Let’s show the wizards our hunger.’

  Upon the longboat, the canoes’ advance had been noticed. Patrick slid Agrestis up onto his lap as he sat back against chest of pink gold. The two wizards were glancing across at the end of each stroke. And Queen Rachel was gnawing at her bottom lip as the sight of Roman uniforms brought back hideous memories of her family and kinsmen being executed before her – it may have happened a long time ago, back when she was only a little girl, but the feelings were suffocating her as though it were only yesterday. She supposed it was the reason why she had always been so eager to have an executioner of her own.

  ‘We cannot let them catch us,’ she blurted out in a voice wracked with anxiety. ‘If we must throw the cursed chest overboard, then so be it.’

  ‘It will be alright,’ said Melania, trying to soothe her, although she had only given the canoes a perfunctory glance, preoccupied as she was with dressing Patrick’s wounds, not giving a second thought to tearing into strips the silk handkerchief that had been a parting gift from her mother on the day she was offered into servitude in the Queen’s court. ‘I don’t think they are catching us.’

  ‘Indeed, they are,’ Merdel replied and looked to Turnstone. ‘My only wonder is if the war wizard has planned for this contingency.’

  ‘You know I have,’ smirked Turnstone coldly and picked up a bow and arrow that had been sitting on hooks on the side of the boat. He took careful aim at a large, half-submerged wooden cage moored to one side of the cove and fired. The arrow arced gracefully through the air and sliced in two the rope holding closed its door. A thick black torrent of flying fish immediately came pouring out and they surged just beneath the surface on a direct course for the Immunes.

  ‘You’re in for quite a spectacle,’ said Turnstone.

  ‘How did you manage to get so many fish into the cage?’ gasped Queen Rachel.

  ‘There were a lot more than that,’ Turnstone replied. ‘They must have been eating each other.’

  ‘Disgusting.’

  A dead rabbit suddenly dropped into the longboat almost on top of the Queen and the shock of it almost sent her recoiling overboard. ‘What was that?’ she gasped, clutching onto her ruby necklace.

  ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said Merdel. ‘That is just Orion, my eagle, ensuring we are well fed. She is very loyal.’ He smiled at the eagle circling the longboat amidst the cloud and tossed the rabbit Turnstone’s way. ‘I’m sure our stewman will be able to make our first dinner aboard something to remember.’

  ‘First night?’ muttered Queen Rachel. ‘How far away is Sardania?’

  ‘That depends on the winds. But I can promise you at least that we will all get to know each other very well.’

  Turnstone smirked at Patrick surrendering himself to Melania’s care. ‘I know at least one person who won’t mind that.’

  Melania glanced at him rigidly. ‘Have you packed aboard your herbs? I will need to bathe him well.’

  ‘Yes, indeed. But let’s get far from here first. My f
ish are by no means tame and there is a danger they will not find their meal of Roman centurions satisfying enough.’

  *

  After circling the canoes several times, the flying fish launched their assault, leaping at the Immunes with their razor sharp teeth set to slice and tear.

  The Immunes were aware the fight was coming and had lashed their canoes together and were on their feet in a defensive circle. They met the onslaught with wildly slashing swords that sent a rain of fish gizzards down into their canoes – the cloud of fish was so dense it was virtually impossible to miss.

  ‘I told you!’ Sarius Sarius cried distraught. ‘This is exactly what happened on Lake Shikijoma! There were no survivors!’

  A fish beat his blade and took a large chunk out of his cheek such that his back teeth were suddenly visible. His scream of agony drew a half-glance from Rhakotis, whose own facial cuts from the fish had so far been only superficial. ‘Keep your sword up, Sarius Sarius!’ Rhakotis cried. ‘Remember the company you are in. The Immunes do not die so easily.’

  Sarius Sarius nodded and tried to compose himself behind his sword. But he lacked the strength and endurance of the Roman centurions. His stroke rate was slow and his arms rapidly tiring. And the flying fish kept coming. One sunk its teeth into his eye, eliciting a scream of horror. He writhed uncontrollably, desperate to rip the fish away, and when he managed it, his eye was no longer there.

  ‘Take the pain!’ Squillus shouted, trying to grab him. ‘Hold your position!’

  It was too late, however. Sarius Sarius was irretrievably off balance and he tumbled into the icy, percolating waters of the cove. The submerged oily cloud hovering around the canoes converged upon him, turning the water a foamy red. Sarius Sarius continued to scream and thrash until the fish had reduced him to mere body parts bobbing about in the water. The hideous sight had both quietened the Immunes and hardened their resolve. They swung their swords as hard as ever, even as their muscles began to twitch and melt with fatigue. Kaen, however, dropped to his knees, weighed down by the mass of fish latched onto his body. He was becoming delirious and tried to climb into the water in a desperate attempt to cleanse himself of the grotesque weight only for Cimber to grab him by the ankles. Cimber pulled him back into the centre of the canoe and stabbed down upon the fish with his dagger in a maniacal blur. He was striking the fish so hard that the blade was cutting into the canoe’s hull, allowing trickles of water to mix with the blood and guts at the bottom. When there were no more fish upon Kaen, Cimber jumped back up to resume the battle against the cloud. He sensed Kaen stirring at the bottom of the canoe and pinned him down with his boot in case he still had eyes for the water. ‘Better stay where you are,’ he said. ‘The fish are certainly biting today.’ His sword sent more and more blood and guts raining down on Kaen and his own feet were completely submerged in the muck. In Rhakotis’s canoe, it was higher still, and the onslaught of flying fish was only now beginning to peter out. Heartened by the realisation respite was at hand, the Immunes applied themselves with a renewed ferocity until the fish were coming only in dribs and drabs and then not at all.

 
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