Penycher pit, p.16
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       Penycher Pit, p.16

           Stuart Parker
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  ‘We’ve done it!’ cried Squillus jubilantly and collapsed exhausted into the back of the canoe. He picked up one of the fish heads hanging from his arm and cringed at the fearsome set of teeth. ‘Revolting.’

  Rhakotis turned to Dafius, thankful that apart from a few scratches she had come away from the ordeal unscathed. Her cheeks were flushed from the effort she had put in and her hands were tightly clinging to her blood soaked knives. ‘Your father would be proud,’ Rhakotis said.

  ‘My father would be upset that we’ve let the Saxon queen get away.’

  ‘You’re right about that.’

  They stood together, watching the longboat leaving the cove for open sea, its sails opening up to the easterly wind. A lone fish shot out of the water and Rhakotis caught it with his bare hands. He squashed it into slush and tossed it away. ‘But a general must know when his army has reached its limit, and that moment is now. It’s time to go home.’

  ‘I will need no convincing in coming with you,’ said Egren, sitting at the rear of the canoe. ‘If you farm like you fight, no one in your village will ever go hungry.’

  ‘It’s too soon to be talking about farming,’ said Rhakotis. ‘We don’t have the strength left to paddle out through the heads.’ He glanced back at the jetty. ‘Which only leaves a return to the village.’

  ‘And the lepers don’t seem to appreciate our presence.’

  ‘I will go find out.’ Rhakotis turned to Cimber and Kaen. ‘Give me your canoe. I have business.’

  Cimber knew better than to argue despite the preposterousness of the idea. He picked up Kaen and swapped canoes with Rhakotis.

  ‘If things go bad,’ said Rhakotis, cutting the rope holding the canoes together, ‘leave me and head for the open sea. Take your chances in that direction. To lose the last of the Immunes in a lepers’ mass grave would be most unfortunate.’

  Cimber shrugged. ‘A general’s orders are a lot more persuasive while he is still alive.’

  Rhakotis handed Cimber his sword. ‘I will go unarmed.’

  ‘Be careful,’ said Dafius anxiously

  Rhakotis nodded, keeping to himself the thought that soldiers who were careful lived longer but were forgotten far quicker. He knelt down in the middle of the canoe and with oar in hand began the journey back to the jetty. He glanced at the gathering of disfigured people upon it, noticing most the weapons that they possessed and the rags that they wore. Beneath his surface placidness was a readiness to react to any provocation. A weapon malevolently used would see him dive into the water and resurface onto the jetty with all the agility of a flying fish and he would disarm the first figure he came to and turn the weapon on the other villagers in a whirlwind. He did not, however, sense this was coming. The lepers were gazing at him in awe. The battle they had witnessed between Immunes and flying fish had made an impression.

  Rhakotis reached the jetty unopposed and he tied up the canoe. He moved slowly and purposefully up the ladder, trying to mask the fact that there was no strength left in his arms. His legs, at least, were still capable and got him onto the walkway. The lepers moved in around him, gazing at him curiously. Their stench was overpowering.

  ‘Who is your leader?’ muttered Rhakotis.

  ‘We don’t have leaders in our village,’ replied a man in a deep, resonant voice, stepping to the fore. ‘But I will speak for us.’ He was a tall man and the arms protruding through his brown robes were stick thin. He pulled back his hood to reveal a face without a nose or ears. ‘My name is Lonsgreg.’

  Rhakotis did not flinch with the sight of him. He had grown all too accustomed to the grotesque forms humans could take. ‘I am Rhakotis.’

  ‘You are an outlaw,’ Lonsgreg replied. ‘The Romans have been beaten from these lands.’

  From his confident demeanour and straight posture, Rhakotis suspected he had once been someone of stature and authority before disease had ravaged him.

  ‘As you can see, we are still here,’ Rhakotis returned. ‘And we will take on any comers. But we would prefer to leave your village in peace. With your canoes returned.’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘We saw the Queen’s entourage hack its way through your people. Are they worthy of the kind of pain we dealt upon their fish?’

  Lonsgreg was unmoved. ‘We are not fish and you will find that those who welcome death can be particularly hard to kill. So, you cannot intimidate us. And the fact remains you took our boats without permission.’

  ‘They are being returned full of fish.’ Rhakotis pointed down to the pieces of fish lapping in the blood and guts at the bottom of the canoe. ‘There is enough for a village feast.’

  Lonsgreg’s lips bent slightly upwards in what might have been a smile. ‘It is a pitiful offer, even for the likes of us.’ He prodded with his sword the discarded robes upon the jetty that the Immunes had used to disguise themselves. ‘You took these robes from our dead, did you not?’

  Rhakotis nodded and his eyes hardened. ‘It is a reason to be upset.’

  ‘On the contrary, for outcasts who draw revulsion and disgust with a mere glance, it is almost to feel human again. You put our clothes to your skin. For that honour, you are free to leave Lepers Cove unchallenged.’

  Rhakotis contained his surprise and bowed his head. ‘Thank you.’

  ‘Of course, if you are tired, you may rest first.’ Lonsgreg’s smile was more discernible this time. ‘We can have that feast.’

  Rhakotis saw the sincerity of the invitation in his eyes. ‘Thank you, but we must return with haste to Penycher. It has been laid to such waste it even makes this place look good.’ He turned to his fellow Immunes, who were watching attentively from out on the water, and waved them in.

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