Penycher pit, p.4
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       Penycher Pit, p.4

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘You brought water?’ she queried anxiously. ‘Aylene’s condition has worsened.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Montone. ‘And I brought a friend of Ollie’s as well. His name is Nero. He was at the river.’ He turned to Nero. ‘This is Ollie’s wife, Junis.’

  The woman looked at Nero circumspectly. ‘My husband went off looking for cures. Is there any advantage in him bringing back friends instead?’

  Nero found her flushed cheeks endearing. ‘In this case it might be,’ he said. ‘Allow me a moment with your daughter.’

  ‘She is inside,’ said Montone.

  Nero put a hand onto his shoulder. ‘Let me see her alone.’

  ‘Why?’ said Junis.

  Nero glanced at her a long moment. ‘Have you ever seen a miracle?’ When she shook her head, he said, ‘That’s why.’

  He stepped alone into the shack. There was a goat lying in the doorway, threatening to trip him up. The girl was curled up on a straw bed in a far corner. Her hair was blonde and a shade brighter than the straw; her face, with its ghostly pale complexion stood out far more.

  ‘Who are you?’ she whispered.

  ‘A family friend,’ replied Nero, ‘who will make you better and then be gone.’

  ‘If you make me healthy, you can stay as long as you want. I will even marry you.’

  Nero chuckled. ‘You would regret that.’ He stepped passed the goat and showed her the Dragon Tear mushroom. ‘Take a bite, if you will.’

  Aylene received it in her fingertips. ‘Do you have any water?’ she queried. ‘Grandfather was fetching some.’

  ‘Your grandfather did better than that. He plucked me from the river. Luckily I was too big for the holes in his pot.’

  Aylene inspected the mushroom carefully in the cracks of light penetrating the straw weave. ‘I’m tired of being afraid,’ she said.

  Nero knelt down beside her and smirked. ‘Don’t get too tired of it. You have plenty of life left in you.’

  As Aylene bit into the mushroom, Nero mulled over whether stealing her away from her family really was going to please the goddesses of fertility. Perhaps, it would be better just to give her a little pick-me-up with the Dragon Tear and be on his way. Montone had lost a son and Junis a husband and having their little girl abducted wasn’t going to do anything for their spirits.

  Montone appeared in the doorway and Nero turned with a start, wondering if the notion of stealing Aylene away was somehow evident on his face.

  ‘Nero, you had better come here,’ Montone murmured grimly. ‘I have some important news.’

  ‘Very well.’ Nero walked out of the grim dwelling to see Montone on the front path looking so pale and cold and it occurred to him he was still wearing his robes. ‘Oh, excuse me.’ But as he started to pull the robes off, there was movement to the side and before he could react a blade had cut through the wool into his chest.

  ‘Got him!’ came a jubilant cry.

  The blade twisted and dug deeper. Nero fell to his knees, his heart pierced.

  ‘Yes, I can see it in your eyes. Great soldiers are the most shocked when death finally comes for them.’ It was Lord Martory who crouched before him; he held out a blood smeared hand for Nero to see. ‘Just as I promised Landard’s young son. My sword fits you well, my friend. I think I will keep it there a while longer.’

  Nero could feel his life force draining away. He splayed out on the ground and lamented that it was not his ears that were first to shut down.

  ‘I cannot imagine what you are doing here,’ continued Martory, leaning closer. ‘What is it with the Immunes? Your friend died defending a village drawn in the mud and here you are meeting your maker coming out of a peasant bird’s nest.’ He leaned closer still and whispered into his ear, ‘For a time, I thought my nose was betraying me. You see, that’s how I tracked you. Since I have been in that damnable pit, I have developed a sense of smell that would put a wolf to shame. And now I will bury you so deep that I will never have to smell you again.’

  Clarant and the band of Saxon lords arrived at the hut, prompting Martory to step back from Nero, his inexplicable sense of smell not a revelation he cared to share with anyone except the dying.

  ‘Is this the outlaw?’ queried Clarant.

  ‘Yes,’ said Martory.

  Clarant looked Nero over with revulsion. ‘We must bury him so deeply that even the dead will not be able to see him. Otherwise, poor Landard will suffer an eternal shame at having succumbed to someone as mediocre as this.’

  A piercing scream from within the shack’s doorway caught them off guard. It was Aylene. She had left her bed for the first time in weeks and she was standing with an expression of pure horror as she looked down upon Nero. The remaining portion of Nero’s mushroom fell out of her hand.

  Nero smiled at her and that was the way his life ended, as wistfully as evaporation.

  Chapter 7

  The Dreadwolf

  The blood of Young Thomas was mixing with the morning dew.

  He was pulling himself along the forest floor with the last of the branches he had been sent out to collect - the firewood for the lords of Penycher Pit. He had abandoned most of it when the creature struck. It had been his routine to collect firewood every morning through the many months he had been the servant of Penycher Pit. And finally his luck had run out. Gripped with pain, he coughed and a spattering of blood came upon his hand. He wiped it off on the ground, paying it little heed, for he already knew he was dying.

  He was fifteen years old and had dull red hair and colourless freckly skin. He was crawling deeper and deeper into Matholwich Forest, his ripped-apart body throbbing painfully with every movement. His hands upon the branches were as white as Roman marble and so weak they could barely maintain their grip. He did not know why the wolves had not already ended his misery. He could hear them panting excitedly behind him, following in a pack. He was helpless against them - an easy meal. Still, he wasn’t afraid. He had seen this moment in his dreams more than once. Vivid premonitions. So, all was as it should be. There was only one thing left to do in this life: to get as far away from the village as his dying breaths would take him, to spare his mother the pain of knowing what had become of him; for she had had the premonitions too. She had described them often, usually with tears welling in her eyes. He would not let her premonitions become a reality.

  Suddenly the wolves yelped and scattered. Somebody was pelting them with rocks.

  ‘Get away!’ a woman screamed, running at them. ‘Leave him alone!’ It was Cokael, and Young Thomas thought her the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, though he had to wonder if he were not in fact delirious. But as Cokael came to him, the worry lines upon her brow and the dark rings of pained sleeplessness around her eyes became visible and assured him that this was reality, after all.

  ‘They’ve gone for the moment,’ Cokael said, kneeling beside him.

  ‘Thank you,’ Young Thomas replied and grimaced with the pain of it. ‘But I fear I am too damaged to be saved.’

  ‘Without meaning to offend, I must say that is not the reason I am here.’

  ‘Then why?’

  Cokael kept her eyes flickering about the heavy mist that hung over the forest, gripping her dagger tightly in case the wolves returned. ‘I saw you working in the pit,’ she said. ‘A slave at the beck and call of every digger’s whim. Fetching food, wine or tools like the pit was a palace. And when you were not fetching things, you were doing the heavy lifting of removing mud and rock into the forest. From sunrise to sunset. So abused, so mistreated, that is why I feel I can trust you.’

  Tears welled in Young Thomas’s eyes. ‘I am the servant of Penycher Pit. It is an honour for my family.’ He placed himself up onto his hands and knees and recommenced his crawling.

  ‘Where are you going?’

  ‘My mother often wakes up screaming with nightmares about a moment like this. I tell her that it is only a dream. Now all I can do is hide my fate. So, I will go far into the
forest.’

  ‘That is where I have come from,’ said Cokael. ‘Is dying so bad that you need to hide it somewhere so dark?’

  ‘It is my mother’s fate I am worried about. If she finds out that I have been torn apart and digested by wild beasts, the light will go out of her.’ The pace of his crawling intensified with the thought. ‘If my body is never found, she can dream that I came into a better life. Perhaps, a kindly lord took me back to his kingdom as an apprentice. Or perhaps I found some pink gold myself and went on a quest to carve out a kingdom of my own. She would proudly wait for the day of my return. And all I have to do to give her this final gift is never to be found - not one piece of me.’

  ‘Getting yourself eaten is your idea of a gift to your mother? The people of Penycher have an interesting way of seeing the world.’ Cokael leaned forward for a closer look at the bite marks that stretched from his shoulders all the way down to his thigh. ‘Nasty. But why didn’t the wolves finish you off?’

  ‘It wasn’t the wolves that did this. What you see is just one bite from the creature they call the dreadwolf. It picked me up in its teeth and shook me viciously and I would have been consumed right there and then if not for another one charging onto the scene. They set upon each other, giving me the chance to escape.’

  ‘Where were your masters of Penycher Pit during all of this? You have been screaming out for help and yet I am the only one who has come.’

  ‘They are important, and I am only a servant. They would not have the time to look for me. Especially as only recently they lost a whole day of work due to the menace of outlaws.’ Young Thomas coughed up some more blood. ‘You better not wait too long to get to the point of what you want.’

  Cokael swallowed hard. ‘I am looking for a man named Nero. He would not hesitate to come to the aid of anyone. Even if he were as chewed up as you, he would consider his wounds mere scratches. To be honest, I hoped your screams would draw him this way.’

  ‘I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out that way.’ Young Thomas kept moving forward only for Cokael to stab the dagger into the ground in front of him.

  ‘See how easily the blade cuts into this ground?’ she said. ‘Even a frail girl like me could bury you deep.’

  Young Thomas gazed at her. ‘Is that a promise?’

  ‘Yes, just as long as you tell me what you can.’

  ‘No matter what?’

  ‘As long as it is the truth.’

  ‘What did you say is his name?’

  ‘Nero. And I’m Cokael. For days I have been hiding in the trees, watching over Penycher Pit, waiting for sight of him. I fear the Saxons have captured him. But all I have seen is filthy men shovelling mud in that pit. Are they really lords?’

  ‘Yes, and in the beginning they did not need to get so filthy to find pink gold. They were plucking it from the surface. But now the pink gold is gone and the lords are growing restless. Their ambitions are shifting to the Wizard Merdel in his tower. They say he is holding enough pink gold to satisfy an entire army.’

  ‘If he is just one man, why don’t they just take it?’

  ‘The serpents in the tower’s moat have annihilated those that have tried.’

  ‘Serpents?’

  ‘They were eels before the pink gold transformed them. Just as the dreadwolfs had once been like any other wolf.’

  ‘Nero will want to know about this. He will claim the pink gold for Rome. How did the wizard accumulate such a horde?’

  Young Thomas sat up. ‘When the animals began to change, and villagers began to disappear with their grotesque screams filling the woods, the wizard went to investigate. He wandered the forest while everyone else in the village cowered in their homes. He found the pink gold in a crater in the forest. Pink gold was everywhere.’

  ‘That crater is now Penycher Pit?’

  Young Thomas nodded and looked at her grimly. ‘But I cannot defer any longer. Is the man you seek Roman?’

  ‘Yes. Why?’

  ‘The outlaws I spoke of were Roman and they perished just days ago at the hands of Lord Martory, the pit’s greatest lord. They were members of the Immunes. One was felled in a tremendous battle in the forest and the other without a fight on the doorstep of a peasant’s shack. I am sure if one of them was your husband, it would not have been the latter.’

  A shudder ran through Cokael. ‘I would see for myself? Where are their bodies?’

  ‘Lord Landard was buried in a simple ceremony and the bodies of the Roman outlaws were left to garner it – preferred to flowers or trinkets. The next morning the grave was still there, as it will be for all eternity, but the outlaws were gone, no doubt claimed by scavengers.’

  Cokael plucked the dagger from the ground and stood up. ‘Lord Martory was the instigator of these things?’ she asked icily.

  Before Young Thomas could answer, there came the sound of rapid movement from within the mist and the bloodcurdling yelps of a wolf being savagely attacked. ‘The dreadwolf has returned,’ gasped Young Thomas. ‘Run for your life.’

  The yelping stopped and there was an eerie silence. For an instant, Cokael was frozen by fear. She could sense that something evil was coming, something to send her to Nero in the afterlife. She snapped out of her paralysis just as the massive silhouette emerged in the mist; she leapt up onto the nearest tree and climbed. The creature crashed into the trunk and sprung up at her, snapping its massive jaws at her legs. Cokael’s fingers slipped on the wet bark but she somehow managed to wedge a foot between two branches and held herself up.

  The creature turned on Young Thomas in a blind fury and this time it found a victim in no condition to flee. Teeth tore into flesh to the tune of horrible screams. Cokael climbed higher up the tree until she had found a secure position in the fork of two branches and then forced herself to look down. Young Thomas was being ripped apart and consumed in large chunks. Cokael rested her head against the tree and burst into tears. So, this was the dreadwolf. The Roman outlaws she had followed into Matholwich Forest had laughed at the rumours that such creatures existed. For them the idea of a forest the Saxons were too afraid to enter sounded nothing short of paradise. But now Nero and Valitino were dead, and Mulchis Gaza probably was as well. Cokael could see now that no one could survive in this forest. And her demise would come soon enough too. The thought that it would be as grotesque as what Young Thomas was experiencing had her shivering uncontrollably. All she could do was cling to the tree and wait for her turn to come.

  Chapter 8

  The Axeman

  Word of Young Thomas’s disappearance spread quickly throughout Penycher.

  For the Saxon lords it meant a cold night with ever diminishing stocks of firewood. For the superstitious villagers it was just further proof that doomsday was drawing ever nearer.

  Egren, the village chieftain, walked pensively through the dark night, wondering how many people in the huts around him were actually sleeping. He suspected precious few. He was a plump, balding man with weepy blue eyes, pot-marked skin and a knee that didn’t bend. At fifty years of age there were few in the village that were older. And the way the world was turning, Egren doubted anyone would get to reach fifty ever again. He came to his destination by a campfire on the fringe of the village and it inexplicably amused him that the one person he was paying to stay awake was in fact snoring in an easy sleep. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the man. Patrick the Axeman’s height and strength were apparent even as he lay curled up in the grass with his enormous axe clutched against his chest. He had shaggy dark blonde hair and hard unshaven cheeks and he was dressed in black-dyed fox fur and deer leather. It seemed he hadn’t been sleeping long, for the skewers set above the fire were spitting juicily. Rabbit and boar meat and it smelt delicious. The chieftain reached across to take one and the snoring suddenly stopped and an eye opened.

  Egren stepped back self-consciously. ‘Good evening, Patrick. I would have a word with you, if you will.’

  Patrick sat up, holding
the axe a little less than casually. ‘Is that what you were doing?’

  ‘It is true I was admiring your skewers,’ Egren mumbled. ‘It has been a long time since I saw meat that was anything more appetising than rat.’

  ‘Game is still plentiful in the forest, if you care to look.’

  ‘With my bad leg I doubt I would last long.’

  Patrick nodded grimly. ‘I suppose not. It’s an ill-tempered wood sure enough.’

  Egren awkwardly sat down by the fire. ‘It’s that ill-temper that’s brought me here. Young Thomas has not come home to his parents tonight. His mother is in hysterics and has sent me to talk with you. On the bequest of our noble lords, he ventured into the forest to gather firewood this morning. You are one of the few that goes that way too and so there is a hope you may know where he is.’

  Patrick shook his head grimly. ‘It is true I was out in the forest today. But all I can tell you is it’s no place for children.’ He gestured with the axe. ‘Not unless they are proficient with such a weapon as this. I hope the lords are nice and comfortable in their camp because I fear their warmth has come at high a price.’

  ‘I do believe they offered you the job before Young Thomas.’

  ‘I am not a servant to lords, no matter how well they pay. They could have been brave enough to fetch their own firewood.’

  Egren sighed sombrely. ‘I’ll tell the Thomas’s you didn’t see anything, but will search in the morning.’ He stared out into the eerie forest beyond the grassy meadow they were upon. ‘If it’s as bad out there as you say, what makes you think you can protect the village from it?’

  Patrick chuckled dryly. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

  ‘I guess not. I pay you to give the villagers piece of mind when I suspect there is none to be had.’

  ‘So, you are hungry?’ Patrick plucked two of the skewers off the fire. ‘Dinner is served.’

  Egren beamed a smile. ‘It’s rabbit, right?’

  ‘To be honest, I’m not quite sure.’ Patrick reached past his pile of firewood and picked up the discarded head. It was a grotesque creature with dagger-like teeth crammed into its mouth and small, black fearsome eyes.

 
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