Penycher pit, p.2
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       Penycher Pit, p.2

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘Come on, father!’ cried his son, horrified that someone could possess such an unfettered fury and power.

  ‘Son,’ cried out Landard in desperation, ‘shoot him with an arrow.’

  Nero watched through the corner of his eye the young boy run to the arrow lodged within the rabbit. He promptly kicked Landard’s legs from under him, putting him flat on his back, and shook his head admonishingly, ‘Do you still think I am nothing more than wild game?’ He locked up their blades and stomped down on Landard’s cross-guard, driving the hilt’s point deep into Landard’s heart. With a scream of agony, the fight was over. Nero left the dying Saxon for the direction of Maynard, who was frantically trying to pry the arrow away from the rabbit.

  ‘Let us negotiate the terms of your surrender,’ Nero said. ‘I’ll take the rabbit and the arrow in it and in return you can keep your life. In other words, your life means no more to me than a dead little furry thing. But that is only if it comes with the arrow. If you pull it out, there is no deal.’

  The boy stopped tugging at the arrow and glanced at his dead father.

  ‘You will not be able to get any guidance from him,’ said Nero. ‘You must be your own man now.’

  ‘Why would you spare me?’ queried Maynard, his voice trembling and tears starting to streak down his cheeks.

  ‘You have just witnessed noble combat in which the Immunes has prevailed. Word of it should be spread. If I attempt that, I will be dismissed as boastful. But sons of the vanquished will certainly be believed.’

  Maynard angrily threw the rabbit at Nero, who amusedly caught it on the tip of his sword.

  ‘Thank you,’ Nero said. ‘The makings of a fine meal. Now bid your father farewell and be on your way. Dwell here too long and the scavengers that come to feast upon him will have you too.’ He marched away, leaving the boy to face the emperor of scars upon his back.

  *

  The wolf was suffering terribly, for its teeth had grown too large for its mouth. The fearsome set of glistening white fangs were on constant display as its mouth, stretched to the point of splitting, failed to enclose them; the longest two teeth at the front were chipped and filthy from constantly dragging along the ground. The wolf’s exposed ribs attested to the impracticality of such large teeth and the terrible hunger that resulted. They were teeth that scared other creatures into retreat, but that were too cumbersome to ever catch one. The wolf could not feed itself on anything more substantial than grass and berries and only then by lying on its side and squeezing them through the corner of its mouth. Being so weak and thin, the wolf could not resist the promise of warmth offered by the campfire that Cokael had been stoking beside Ollis’s wrecked carriage. Especially having endured yet another wet, icy cold night, it had grown so sensitive to the presence of warmth that it could detect its scent like it were prey.

  The wolf left the cover of the forest for the muddy road and edged closer, its front teeth dragging laboriously along the ground. The fire was burning brightly with the last of the fuel having been hurriedly added onto it. Cokael had taken that action upon seeing the hideous looking creature edging her way, but to her horror, she realised the heightened flames were not discouraging its approach. She steeled herself to fight for her life with her hopelessly undersized dagger. The wolf was continuing its relentless advance, and Cokael was certain at any moment it would burst into a charge and leap upon her. She wriggled further under the carriage, hoping the confined space would limit the strength and reach of its jaws.

  ‘Don’t fear, my darling,’ cried Nero, bounding out of the forest. His eyes were fixed on the wolf and his sword raised high. The wolf heard his approach, but was too weighted down by its teeth to react, and was too slow to see the slashing sword in its final instant of life. While its body crumpled, its head remained upright, propped up by its teeth in a gruesome display.

  Cokael ran to Nero and leapt into his arms. ‘That was awful,’ she gasped. ‘I’ve never seen a more grotesque creature.’

  Nero held her and tenderly stroked her hair. ‘Yes, it was an ugly beast. Shall we eat it?’

  Cokael backed away. ‘Are you crazy?’

  ‘Eating your enemies is the best of feasts. I was taught that by a tribal chief in darkest Germania.’

  ‘Germania? Did he try to eat you?’

  ‘Hardly. I spent a month there training his men. Apparently I would wake up screaming most nights. The chief stood by my bed one night and realised I was haunted by the men I had killed. So, he promptly shook me awake and insisted that in future I eat those that I kill. He explained that what a stomach can comfortably digest will never remerge as a bad dream. He even gave me recipes.’

  Cokael winced. ‘If I taste even a single bite of that monster, there will be no more point going to Pollio’s Garden as my stomach will be ruined beyond repair.’

  ‘Never mind.’ Nero kicked the head away, dismissively. ‘I’ve also brought a rabbit for breakfast.’

  ‘Is that really all you caught?’ Cokael murmured, looking him over. ‘There is a lot more blood on you than what courses through the veins of a rabbit.’

  ‘Actually, our rabbit is a rare delicacy. It is the last meal of a Saxon lord and it is we who shall eat it.’ He tenderly took her hand. ‘It is a gift from the gods of war. It is their blessing of our union.’

  Cokael kissed his lips. ‘But is the goddess of love smiling upon us too? After we made love in the stream, that terrible storm raged. It is an ill omen.’

  Nero shrugged dourly.

  ‘And there is more to be concerned about than just that.’ Cokael hurried over to the carriage and pulled out a brown leather bag. ‘Did you realise while we were making love in the carriage last night, this was our pillow? It is the bag of fruit Ollis was taking to his sick daughter.’

  What’s wrong with that?’ murmured Nero. ‘It was soft.’

  ‘Our marital bed was made upon poisoned fruit? What kind of child would be conceived from such a moment?’

  Nero mulled over the thought. ‘When it comes to death and destruction, the gods of war are easily appeased. Winning the favours of the goddess of fertility is less clear to me.’

  ‘The difference should be obvious: instead of hate there must be love.’

  Nero wiped his bloody hands on his shirt. ‘Real soldiers are too busy killing to hate. But I understand that all gods must be appeased in their fashion.’

  ‘So, what should we do?’ queried Cokael. ‘Deliver the fruit to the sick daughter?’

  Nero shook his head. ‘That will not be enough. We cannot expect her to fare any better than her father in finding her cure amidst Pollio’s malevolence.’

  ‘What can we do then?’

  ‘We must take her under our care. Purge the illness from her body with care and ritual.’

  ‘I thought you were in a hurry to catch up to Mulchis and Valitino.’

  ‘Mulchis and Valitino are not the goddess of fertility.’

  ‘What if the family does not want you to take their daughter?’

  ‘I will have no idea what the family wants or doesn’t want, for I have no intention of asking.’ Nero motioned with his head. ‘Hear the running water in the distance?That is the stream where we bathed. Prepare a camp and a bed of soft leaves. I will fetch the girl.’

  ‘Ollis did not tell you the location of his home.’

  ‘The road leads to Penycher. That is direction enough.’ Nero put a hand on Cokael’s shoulder and peered tenderly into her eyes. ‘Why are you looking at me like you’ll never see me again? You’re with the Immunes now. You need to get accustomed to surviving.’

  Cokael ignored the blood on his chest and hugged him tightly. ‘Surviving even you?’

  Chapter 3

  The Smoke and Fire

  Lord Martory leaned over the campfire and inhaled a lungful of smoke.

  He cringed with the acrid taste, but held the smoke in, revelling in its attack upon his senses. Tears rolled down his cheeks as though to dou
se the flames within. When he finally exhaled again, there was no trace of the smoke - it had been consumed.

  Lord Martory was lithe and taller than he appeared by the fire, his sharp knees having sunk into the damp ground. His grey blue eyes simmered with strength and intelligence and his hair was the blackness of coal. He had organised before him saplings and branches for the burning. There were budding flowers of oranges, whites and blues and small berries of varying shades of reds. Martory took a bunch of berry laden branches, sniffed them in a brief but studious fashion and tossed them into the fire. The berries sweated out their moisture with the scent of pungent burned wine. Martory sucked it in.

  Beside him was the extraordinarily deep and wide hole in the ground that was Penycher Pit. It seemed a mockery that this was considered sacred ground fit only for kings and queens and their lords. Could there still be the precious pink gold hidden beneath the oceans of foul mud? There had not been a discovery for days and even then it had only been a morsel, and yet still the Saxon lords dug - they would dig the world inside out in their quest for the precious metal from which power would come.

  After a time, the smoke became cleaner and the flavour of berries sweetened. It was luxurious. Martory would next time have the whole tree brought to him, no matter how deep within Matholwich Forest it had to be fetched from. He suddenly sensed someone approaching from behind and in a flash had his side-dagger out.

  Lord Clarant was the man approaching him and held out his hands benignly. ‘It is only I, Martory.’ Clarant was round shouldered and had wavy blonde hair, a thin jawline and prominent ears. He moved uneasily, his nerves and body having been run ragged by the endless days of toil in Penycher Pit. ‘I have come to tell you there is trouble in the camp.’

  ‘I can see that. You always nibble on your bottom lip when there is death.’ Martory returned his gaze to the flickering flames. ‘Don’t tell me it is the boy who gathers my bushes for me. Although I wouldn’t expect him to live long going so deeply into the forest, it would pain me all the same.’

  ‘Young Thomas is alive and occupied serving our breakfast.’

  ‘Then who?’

  ‘One of us, I’m afraid.’

  There were no more dreams to be had in the fire. Martory glared hard at Clarant. ‘Who?’

  ‘Landard. And it was not a wild beast that took him. It was a Roman.’

  ‘Another kind of wild beast. How did it happen?’

  ‘He was hunting game with his son when he was ambushed by an outlaw who claimed to be an Immunes. Maynard was spared and is now back in camp. He says the outlaw slayed Landard with the mere handle of his sword. That is especially disturbing as he was the best swordsman among us.’

  Martory stood up. ‘Obviously this outlaw was a morning person. But tell me, what was Landard doing hunting game out in the forest? We are lords of Glywysing and our deaths are meant for greater things. We have servants to satisfy our basic needs.’

  ‘I think hunting rabbits made him feel normal again.’

  ‘This is not the right place at all to try feeling normal. Tell me about the son, Maynard. Does he still have his wits about him?’

  ‘As lucid as you could expect considering he has just seen his father’s demise.’

  ‘In my case the great pity was that I only got to see it once. And in the meantime I had to see my mother die a few more times than that.’

  ‘Well, many an enemy has paid a grave price for your anger. When you cut off a head, they usually blink twice before they realise they’re dead.’

  Martory spat disdainfully. ‘If the son’s account is accurate we will have some work to do before the diggings begin for the day. A wild beast can be considered a natural cause of death in these parts, but a Roman never.’

  He led the way into the lords’ camp where, in a courtyard surrounded by rows of tents, steaming pots of turnip-wreaking stew were being served on long overcrowded tables. There was not, however, the usual laughter or banter, for word of Landard’s fate had gotten around to all.

  Young Thomas, the red-headed fourteen year old camp servant, rushed to greet the new arrivals. ‘Lord Martory, Lord Clarant, shall I fetch you some soup?’

  ‘That will not be necessary,’ said Martory.

  ‘Martory,’ called out Barrini from amongst their number, ‘have you heard the news? Landard went out looking for rabbit to add body to our soup. Now all we can do is honour him as we partake.’

  ‘Yes, there is a limit to what you can do at a table,’ replied Martory, ‘and that is why soldiers do not fight with spoons.’

  ‘An outlaw in a forest as dense and dark as Matholwich could be impossible to find,’ said the squeaky-voiced Tambet from the far end of the table. ‘Shouldn’t we just leave him for the wild beasts?’

  ‘If you are referring to us as the wild beasts then I agree. Maynard will lead us to the scene of his father’s demise and we will hunt down the outlaw from there. If you would rather stay here with your stew, I fear what that would tell Glywysing much about the honour of its lords.’

  ‘We will go,’ cried Barrini. ‘When we heard there would be no meat to fill out our stew, we decided to replace it with beer instead, all the way to the top.’ He picked up his bowl and drained it with his head tilted fully back. He then slapped the bowl triumphantly upon the table amidst a boisterous cheer from his fellow lords. ‘That is a fighting man’s stew, so let’s fight.’

  There were more cheers and bowls were drained. The Saxon lords rose as one from the tables.

  Chapter 4

  The Death Monk

  A monk dressed in black robes was pounding at a tree trunk with a long wooden staff.

  The large hood over his head concealed his entire face but for the tip of a long chin and equine nose. The monk only had one arm but it was incredibly strong, the noise of the pounding reverberating deep into the forest. Nero crouched behind an oak tree to the side, wondering what the monk was up to, though not daring to come any closer. Finally, however, he decided to summon his courage. He had left Cokael that same day for the journey to Penycher Village and the daughter of Ollis and he was sure a monk would be a reliable source of directions - even one who had oddly taken to pummelling a tree. Anyway, he couldn’t be too choosy about who he talked to in these parts. He could go days without seeing another soul in this cursed forest.

  ‘Hello, there,’ said Nero as he stepped out from the oak tree. ‘Are you from around here? I’m on my way to save the life of a little girl. The daughter of Ollis. It is an act of kindness and thus something I am sadly enough unused to. But it is not a monk’s blessing I seek. Merely directions.’

  The monk stopped his onslaught on the tree trunk and approached Nero. His face, just a dark silhouette within the hood, exuded menace, compelling Nero to rest a hand on the hilt of his sword.

  ‘If you have taken a vow of silence,’ Nero murmured. ‘I would settle for a finger pointing in the right direction. Or a shake of head if you are uncertain.’

  The monk released a terrifying snake-like hissing and peeled back his hood to reveal a pair of murderous yellow eyes. He tossed aside his shaft and held up his hand to a reveal a palm riddled with ruts. An icy chill shuddered through Nero as he realised the ruts were the outline of human teeth that had been worked in under the skin. He doubted he had encountered a more grotesque sight. The monk’s hand moved in a flash, whipping out a knife from beneath his robes and throwing it at Nero. Nero lunged to the side, the blade grazing his chest and inflicting what promised to be another scar for his body.

  Nero took sword to hand and shook his head. ‘I would ask you what’s wrong, but you don’t seem to be much of a talker. All I know is on this day, when I was set on impressing the gods with good deeds, I am about to slice open a monk. Anyway, so be it.’ Nero advanced, well aware that a shield would have been particularly useful against a knife thrower as skilful as this. Sure enough, the monk produced another knife and flung it at him. This time it was Nero’s neck that got nicked
as he twisted reflexively away. The monk leapt wildly up at him, the shape of the blade attached to his knee just barely discernible beneath his robes. Nero threw himself backwards, off-balance, landing heavily on his back and sensed rather than saw yet another blade coming down on him. He rolled away, eluding the blade by the narrowest of margins and he plunged his sword deep into the monk’s chest. He lifted the blade to ensure it was lodged tight and flung the monk brutally to the ground. Still the monk did not utter a sound. Curled up on his knees he cupped a handful of blood oozing from his wound and squeezed it through his fingers in a defiant fist.

  Nero looked him over from a distance, not daring to venture any closer in case there were more daggers hidden away. ‘You may have taken a vow of silence,’ he muttered, ‘but you clearly haven’t taken a vow of peace.’ Still there was no reply. ‘I have never before encountered a dying man with nothing to say. If your god extolls the virtue of silence, he would not think well me. I’ll be back to collect my sword after you’ve finished dying.’

  Nero went to the tree, curious to see why the monk had been hammering at it - perhaps there was a beehive or some ripe fruit he had been trying to knock down. Nero, however, almost fainted with the shock of what he actually discovered. Valitino, his friend and fellow outlaw, was bound spread-eagled to the tree, beaten to a bloody pulp. His face was almost unrecognisable, his eyes swollen slabs of meat and his lips bloated purple warms, but Nero had fought alongside him most his life and knew him instinctively. ‘Valitino, it’s me,’ said Nero, hurriedly trying to untie the rope. ‘I’m going to get you out of here.’

 
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