Penycher pit, p.3
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       Penycher Pit, p.3

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘Nero, is it really you?’ muttered Valitino in a hoarse voice. ‘Where’s that damned hissing monk?’

  ‘He’s curled over on his knees with my sword between his ribs.’ Nero gritted his teeth as he found the rope knots had been pulled viciously tight. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He stomped back to the slain monk still clinging to the last vestiges of life and crudely yanked the sword from his chest. ‘All I can say is you’ll want to be dead by the time I get back,’ he gnarled and returned to the tree. He cut the ropes and Valitino crumpled to the ground. Nero slapped him hard across the face. ‘Don’t go to sleep, my friend.’

  ‘My eyes are open,’ muttered Valitino.

  Nero stared hard at the grotesquely swollen face. ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Thank the gods you found me.’

  ‘It was the monk’s banging on the tree that drew me here. Did he keep missing you?’

  ‘It was a ritual. He would hit the tree one hundred and one times for every time he hit me. You’re lucky you came after he had been doing it for a while. His arms had gotten tired.’

  Nero snarled. ‘What kind of monk is he? Not like the ones back home.’

  ‘They call themselves Death Monks. I know because he wrote it on my chest with an overgrown fingernail. If there are more of them nearby, I would rather not know about it.’

  ‘Was Mulchis captured too?’

  ‘When I left him, he was preparing camp down river from the Pollio Gardens. We didn’t think you were far away, so I went to fetch you. But it turned out the Death Monk was closer.’

  ‘I apologise. Being with Cokael is the first time I have ever been lost. I’m afraid it might be love.’

  ‘Not the ideal place for such things.’

  ‘That’s true enough, but we seem to be managing.’

  ‘Well, shut up and get me away from here.’

  ‘I’ll try, but you’re as heavy as you are ugly.’ Nero gave him his sword. ‘Hold onto this.’

  Valitino’s hands locked tightly upon it. ‘Hurry. I have a very bad feeling about this forest.’

  Nero slung him over his shoulder and headed away from the battered tree, moving as fast as he could under the weight of his friend. ‘Do you know the way? I have been trying to get directions.’

  ‘Never mind, it is already too late.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘I can hear their horses. We are being pursued.’

  Nero unceremoniously emptied his shoulder of Valitino and rested his fingertips lightly on the damp earth. The vibrations were immediately apparent. ‘You’re right. There are horses approaching quickly. We won’t be able to outrun them. You had better take cover. I will lead them away from here.’

  ‘Very well.’

  ‘I will be back soon. And then we’ll finish our journey to Pollio Gardens. With the appetites we’ll have, we’ll descend upon the fruits like a locust plague.’ Nero flicked the blade of the sword Valitino was still clutching tightly. ‘If you get into trouble, turn your enemy into a blood trail, and I will follow it. That is the Immunes way.’

  Valitino nodded. ‘But do not feel bad if the blood turns out to be mine. You cannot save someone’s life, only offer them the opportunity of a better death. You have done that well.’ He smiled through the pain and crawled away into the bushes.

  Nero watched him go and realised that what Valitino had said was true when it came to old soldiers who lived from one battle to the next. But with a young girl it was different. There was so much life to give. The sounds of the horses were growing ever louder and Nero started moving in the other direction to Valitino, his thoughts fixed upon the sick little girl he had been begged to save.

  *

  ‘I’ve seen monks like this near Penycher Pit. I didn’t kill them at the time because killing monks seems unholy. But obviously others do not have such qualms.’ Lord Martory was out front of the well-armed band of Saxon lords, kneeling over the corpse of the Death Monk. He rolled back the hood to see the brutal, ugly face. Even as a corpse he appeared terrifyingly dangerous. ‘Ending his life would have taken some doing,’ he observed.

  ‘It must be the work of the outlaw that sent Landard to his grave,’ said Clarant at his side.

  ‘I think you’re right.’ Martory mounted his horse with an effortless spring that belied its considerable height. The horse was an imposing grey mare named Tremor, and although its name was earned from the way the ground would shake underneath it at speed, that was not what was required now. Martory eased it gently forward now. ‘Spread out in a line,’ he directed of the other lords. ‘There has been a fight here, and there is a blood trail leading away into the forest. So, our man is wounded. You are the web. When you feel a tickle, shout out to the spider.’

  The Saxon lords fanned out upon their horses, eager to quash this enemy quickly, eager to return to Penycher Pit.

  Chapter 5

  The Village in the Dirt

  Valitino could hear the horses coming closer and closer.

  He stopped crawling and looked around him and realised as dark and mysterious as this forest was, there was no place to hide. He could see ahead of him footprints heading away along a muddy track in the direction of Penycher. He hoped it was evidence of Nero’s escape. He did not blame him for abandoning him here to his fate. If he had stayed, it would simply have meant another Immunes would have perished in the bleakness of Matholwich Forest. Leaving behind his sword was assistance enough. It meant he could die well. He used it to pick himself up and upon the track sketched the outline of huts and trees, and then a woman and three children on one side and a man on the other. He was just adding a circular border when a Saxon emerged on horseback from the forest with his eyes excitedly latching onto him.

  ‘I’ve found the Roman!’ the man screamed at the top of his voice. ‘We’ve got him, boys!’

  It brought on a rush of galloping horses and the track was quickly inundated with the lords of Penycher Pit. Martory nudged Tremor to the front and gazed inquisitively over Valitino and the sketch at his feet. ‘What is this?’ he murmured.

  Valitino stood up straight. ‘This is my village. This is my wife and children and here is my leader, Rhakotis. These are the people to whom I have sworn my life. Step over the perimetre line only if you are prepared to die.’

  Martory leaned forward on his saddle, quietly amused. ‘Tell me, where in your insignificant little village is the graveyard? That is where I will put you.’

  Valitino lifted up his sword ready to battle. ‘You want to know where the graveyard is? Step this way and I will introduce you to it.’

  Clarant pushed up alongside Martory and barked, ‘An angry soul, all beaten up and diseased. Just the type to have butchered a monk. And our friend Landard as well. Indeed, that is probably how you got your beating.’ He took in a heated breath. ‘It pains me to think that such a simpleton as this could have bested Landard. Childishly drawing pictures on the ground. Shall I fetch our own young ones? Blooding them in battle would never be so close to play as this.’

  ‘Don’t be so sure,’ Martory interjected. ‘I believe what we have here truly is one of the Roman Immunes. If so, that childishly drawn circle could spell the death of an unwary soldier.’

  ‘An Immunes?’ Clarant spat into the circle. ‘That is what I think of any Roman.’

  ‘Allow me.’ Martory pulled his sword. ‘I have not killed a Roman in a while.’ He swung off the Tremor and stepped into the circle. Valitino rushed him without delay, the blade of his sword all but irresistible as it whispered for Martory’s throat. Martory blocked it comfortably and retaliated with a spearing thrust at his heart. VaIitino sidestepped and knocked the blade away. It was the opening salvo in a contest that filled the air with grunts and clashing steel. Birds scattered, animals scampered to their shelters, and the lords of Penycher Pit enthusiastically dismounted from their horses to be closer.

  ‘Shall we intervene?’ called out Lord Talbat with a note of concern.

 
Do not!’ cried Martory. ‘If anyone steps over that line, I will end them myself.’ The threat, however, was only in his voice, for the frenetic pace of the combat had tired him to the point that the only person he was still a threat to was a similarly fatigued Valitino. The mesmerising skill initially on display faded to pure dogged determination. Each combatant was taking his turn at a thrust with an increasingly cumbersome sword; the defender, too tired now to dodge it, would grimace with the wrist snapping strain of blocking one more blow.

  Then, inexplicably, Martory broke into laughter and tossed away his sword. ‘You have fought well. You have proved those drawings in the dirt have real life. The embrace of the woman soft and gentle. The calls of the children the most heart-warming of sounds. And a village to keep them in. You have done well. When you say goodbye to them as you die in the dirt, I hope they will hear you.’ He took his side-dagger to hand, its shininess a stark contrast to the mud spattered hand gripping it. ‘Experience has taught me that the best way to kill the small people of this world is with a blade that is big. Equally, the best way to kill someone big is with a blade that is small.’ He wafted the dagger in front of Valitino. ‘This will tell you the kind of person I think you are.’ He turned to the lords crowded around the circle. ‘Let him go to the next world with three cheers.’

  Clarant led the cheers and the lords responded heartily. On the first cheer, Martory ran into the giant Barrini, saying, ‘Fling me back like you are the catapult and I am the rock.’

  Barrini nodded and grabbed Martory’s arm and screamed with exertion as he slung him at Valitino. Valitino took a low, tentative swing that Martory leapt over and with a ferocious backward thrust plunged the dagger into Valitino’s back. Valitino dropped to his knees, the life draining from his stunned face and he collapsed onto his face. The second cheer of the Saxon lords was the last sound he heard.

  The third cheer was for Martory. He wrenched the dagger from Valitino’s chest and put an ear to his mouth as though to listen to his dying words. ‘Oh, he speaks!’ he cried mockingly. He held the pose a moment and straightened up and addressed the lords with the animation of a pantomime. ‘It was a dead man’s whisper. He indicated that now he is no longer of any use to his wife, so beautiful as you can see from her picture in the mud, that I am more than welcome to offer myself as a replacement. In fact, I am to consider his little drawings a contract for my new possessions.’

  The Saxon lords burst into laughter.

  ‘And there’s more,’ Martory exclaimed. ‘He made it clear we are not to shift a grain of dirt in the name of burial. He accepts that our efforts with the shovel are reserved purely for the sacred ground of Penycher Pit. So, we will decorate Landard’s grave with his carcass until the hungry beasts of the forest come to feast upon him.’

  More cheers erupted. Martory waved them quiet. ‘The most important revelation, however, was that he is not the cowardly killer of Lord Landard, merely an acquaintance. So, if you are not too busy, there is another man still to die this day.’

  This time, however, the cheering was more muted, the Saxon lords looking to each other. It was a mixture of Penycher Pit’s allure and the apprehension of venturing any further into Matholwich Forest. Realising their trepidation, Clarant shouted, ‘Having seen the good Martory handle a blade, I’m sure you are questioning your own proficiency, your own ability to stand up to such dangerous Roman outlaws as this.’ He put a foot on Valitino’s body. ‘But tell me, which fantastic, never to be emulated flourish of blade achieved this victory? Can you name it? Well, I tell you there was no flourish. Certainly not the last. Victory was achieved with a hundred determined strokes. And with a loyal friend. We have all come to Penycher with just one purpose, to become invincible; it is because we all want it, that we shall have it.’

  The Saxon lords cheered louder than ever and lustfully raised their swords into the air. Martory smiled and patted Clarant on the back. ‘Well done, my friend. That lit a fire under them.’ He raised his own dagger in turn. He felt self-conscious about the smallness of the blade but was gladdened by the blood trickling onto his fingers.

  Chapter 6

  The Miracle

  Nero’s hair was whipping furiously about his shoulders as he ran faster than he had in many a long year.

  Leaving behind his sword with Valitino had made him lighter on his feet and being pursued weaponless by Saxon lords gave him a rare reminder that there was a heart beating in his chest. He came to a wide, fast flowing river and threw himself in. The icy torrent took hold and tugged and pulled, forcing him to fight for breath. Rocks beneath the surface were inflicting bruising blows and the cold was already causing him to shiver. Nonetheless, sensing that it was an effective escape from a deadly enemy, Nero was relishing every moment.

  The rapids carried him along through a series of sharp bends walled in by dense forest before the river widened and its currents eased. Sunlight was breaking through the cloud with a calming, revitalising warmth. There was still enough tug in the river to carry Nero along and, to his surprise, it was pushing him in the direction of an old man at the water’s edge. The man had a bushy grey beard and a particularly round bald head. He was dressed in loose woollen robes that were floating about at his knees as he busily went about scooping up water into a large clay pot on the bank. He was so preoccupied with his purpose that he did not notice Nero’s approach. In fact, Nero had rarely seen someone so fixated on water outside a desert.

  ‘Are you alright, my friend?’ Nero queried, standing up beside him.

  Not in the least bit startled, the old man glared at him with tired, bloodshot eyes. ‘What makes you think I am your friend?’

  ‘Because you don’t look much like an enemy.’

  ‘What does your enemy look like?’

  ‘Large swords, youthful and arrogant. So, almost nothing like you.’

  The old man frowned. ‘Do you speak of Saxon lords?’

  ‘Yes, I do.’

  The old man straightened up from his pot as far as his rooked spine would allow. ‘Then perhaps I am your friend, after all. Are they the reason you have come drifting down the river?’

  ‘I am a Roman Immunes and in their eyes I am an outlaw.’

  ‘Then you should take the river as far into the forest as you can. And when the forest ends you should keep running.’

  ‘You have come a long way into the forest yourself,’ said Nero. ‘Too far to be collecting water in a chipped old pot like that.’

  ‘It is the only pot we have. I have come this far upstream in the hope the water will be pure far away from the village. The gold dust of Penycher Pit is poisoning and polluting everything. Everything including my granddaughter. She has been bedridden for days and her condition is only getting worse. If she is to have any chance, she must get clean water.’

  ‘Penycher Pit?’

  ‘You must know it. Why else would you be waging war with Saxon lords?’

  Nero smirked hopefully. ‘Funny you should mention that. Tell me, old man, has this little girl’s father ventured even deeper into the forest in the search for cures? A father named Ollis?’

  The old man’s eyes widened. ‘You know him?’

  ‘I have come on his behest. And the gods have guided me here. I have the cure your granddaughter needs. Her name is Aylene, is it not?’

  ‘Surely the gods have brought you here. Where is your medicine?’

  Nero reached into the bag within the pocket of his deerskin pants and removed a Dragon Tear mushroom. ‘Would you like a bite?’

  ‘A soggy mushroom?’ The old man frowned. ‘We live in the time of magical pink gold and that is the best you can muster?’

  ‘This is the only magic of which you need to know.’ Nero returned the mushroom to his pocket. ‘It has been my nourishment as I have escaped certain death these past few days. And if that is what your granddaughter is facing now, you had better lead the way to her.’

  ‘Why isn’t Ollie himself here? Is he out looking
for more medicine?’

  Nero pulled a face. ‘He is exploring deeper the dark forest.’

  Montone took off his robe outer robe and handed it to him. ‘You will need to disguise yourself from the Saxons. While we are walking back to Penycher, you can tell me more of why they are after you, and how you have managed to elude them. I should like to hear that.’ He hauled the pot to his chest. ‘My name is Montone.’

  ‘I am Nero.’

  Montone led the way along a narrow track and murmured after a while, ‘The lords of Penycher Pit do not appear to be coming. You must be quite a soldier to have eluded them.’

  ‘There is nothing for me to be proud of. I have vowed to die a hundred deaths before I die once. It is a vow that compelled me to kill a monk this day. And abandon a friend.’

  ‘If you refuse to die before your goal is achieved, that is the greed of a good soldier. And I’m not as shocked of your slaying a monk as you might think. Not in this age of transformation. Many things are not as they once were or should be.’

  *

  Montone knew the forest intimately and led Nero along narrow hidden tracks that traversed spectacular groves of Grand Fir trees and steep, densely vegetated hills abuzz with the sounds of insects. Nero and Montone, on the other hand, had fallen into silence. Montone even held his tongue when he noticed the scars on Nero’s back. Nero at least managed to coax the pot out of his hands and their pace hastened significantly. But there was still far to travel, for Montone had journeyed a long way into Matholwich Forest in his quest for purity.

  ‘We are nearing Penycher,’ he murmured at last. ‘Be on guard.’

  Through a semi-wooded rise, a small straw thatched shack was emerging. There were goats and chickens in a pen, but no real evidence that this was a residence that could comfortably sustain itself. A short, young woman with bright ginger hair pushed open the door of reeds and branches to greet them.

 
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