Penycher pit, p.5
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       Penycher Pit, p.5

           Stuart Parker
 
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  Egren recoiled with the sight of it. ‘What is it?’

  ‘I really don’t know, But it kind of tastes like chicken.’

  Egren laughed despite himself. ‘You’re a mad Irishman.’ He bit the meat off his skewer and relished the moment. ‘You’re right though. Quite edible.’ As he continued the meal, he looked across to the silhouette of Merdel’s tower to the north of the meadow. ‘I wonder what Merdel is eating tonight.’

  ‘Do wizards even need to eat?’

  ‘His eagle, Orion, forages in the forest just like you. I have seen it returning to the tower with game gripped within its talons.’

  ‘Really?’ Patrick stripped the meat of his skewer and tossed it into the fire. ‘Interesting.’

  ‘No matter how he’s surviving for the moment, it’s unlikely to be a long term proposition. Flaunting his stash of pink gold over Penycher Pit is a mistake.’

  ‘No one has seen him in months. I don’t think that counts as flaunting.’

  ‘His very existence is flaunting. I believe the lords are summoning their armies for an assault upon the tower.’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Queen Rachel of Glywysing is coming to see the pit for herself and is unlikely to be impressed with lords knee-deep in mud. She is, however, well known for her fondness of battle.’

  ‘So, they will take on the wizard and his serpents to amuse their queen? How thoughtful of them.’ Patrick picked out another skewer. ‘Tell the Thomas’s I will look for signs of their son when I go back into the forest tomorrow.’

  Egren got cumbersomely to his feet. ‘It might be safer for you to stay in the forest altogether,’ he murmured.

  Patrick frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘You don’t realise it but you’re flaunting too. A warm fire, fresh meat. The lords won’t have forgotten your refusal to be their servant and with Young Thomas gone they might come asking again and not as politely as before.’

  ‘The answer they get will still be the same. My axe is named Agrestis, which means ill bred. Being the bastard son of an Irish raider, that name was used all too often to describe myself. But now if I hear that name or anything like it, I assume that it is the axe they are beckoning and I ensure that it is the axe that replies.’

  Egren pulled a face. ‘I must warn you there is another pastime apart from battles that Queen Rachel particularly enjoys: executions.’ He started back into the village with his shoulders hunched over and his bad leg dragging. ‘These are dangerous times,’ he muttered.

 

  Chapter 9

  The Nest of Warriors

  In battle there were a thousand different ways to die and it made for a thousand different sounds.

  Hideous screams, steel hacking into flesh, blood hissing out of severed arteries, bodies hitting ground. The sounds were everywhere, as though the land itself were dying.

  Rhakotis held back in the moss-carpeted rocky crags at the base of the hill from which the attacking army had come and listened with his eyes closed. He took in a deep, calming breath. He did this as a matter of routine, for if nightmares of battle were to be avoided, the calmness needed to be acquired on the battlefield itself. That was a lesson he had learned over many years, and after many tortured nights contorting within his bed. As his eyes opened again, he glanced impassively at his sword-hand covered in blood - the bright scarlet ooze had been making his sword too slippery to grip. One of the thickest scars on his chest was a knife wound born from losing his sword in such a manner, back in the days when he had been too excited to take stock, to wipe his hands.

  Rhakotis was forty two years old and had not been in battle for many years - something which only now occurred to him as he wiped his hands on farming moleskins rather than the customary tunic of the Roman centurion. The blood was a mixture derived from numerous men and it made plain enough that although Rhakotis had been gradually transforming himself into a farmer, it was still only a thin layer covering a lifetime’s instruction in soldiery.

  The battlefield was revealing similar such stories among the defenders of Calhoun, a village with a population of three hundred, bordering the Vinek Swamps in the south western corner of Glywysing. The village was known far and wide as a sanctuary for displaced warriors of all kinds, whether they be struck by debilitating wounds, tormented by past battles, deserters, or simply retired. They would come to be farmers and hunters and would be accepted no matter which army they were once sworn to, just so long as no questions were asked, no past battles rehashed, and their weapons were set aside. Thus, this was a rare opportunity for Rhakotis to see just how deadly his fellow villagers really were. It was as intriguing as it was impressive that these men so placid with a rake or pick could come alive to be so brutal with a blade. And the fighting styles were of such varieties: there were the war arts of the Germanians, Byzantines, Africans and Irish. The hundreds strong attacking force was not coping well: it seemed it was placid farmers they had been expecting to encounter in their charge upon the village. But Rhakotis knew the fight was far from over and that soldiers out of practice could grow tired and slow very quickly. He shook the stiffness out of his sword arm and was readying himself to return to the battlefield when he detected a whisper of footsteps behind him. He turned sharply with his sword raised, only to be greeted by the broad grin of his lifelong friend Cimber, one of the compatriots he had drifted to Calhoun Village with when the downtrodden Roman legions had abandoned Britain to the Saxons all those years ago.

  ‘Catching your breath?’ queried Cimber. ‘Getting a little too old to wield your sword?’

  There were enough similarities in the two men’s flat noses, thick earlobes, scraggily hair, thick eyebrows, and strong jaws to have mistakenly convinced many they were brothers. And although Rhakotis had been the one to rise through the ranks to general, they had never been anything more than equals in each other’s eyes. Their endless sparring with training swords had only ever confirmed it: Rhakotis’s longer reach had seen him get the better of his share of contests, whilst Cimber’s superior agility had seen to the rest. Both sets of skills had spilled blood in the day’s battle, with their wooden swords having been replaced by hard steel.

  ‘Perhaps a nap would be in order,’ Cimber continued to needle, ‘though I would have expected you to be keeping a hawk’s eye on your son, this being his first real battle.’

  The look Rhakotis shot him seemed to have been sharpened on the same hard whetstone as his sword. ‘To teach your son the art of war, you must first ready him for the glory of the afterlife, and the father must be prepared for that too.’

  Cimber knelt lower in amongst the rocky crags, aware there were too many arrows buzzing around to risk leaving himself exposed. ‘Well, I did what his less than doting father would not and follow his progress.’

  ‘And?’

  ‘You have trained him well. When he fights, he is the spitting image of his father. He too will need a good bath to wash off the red stains.’

  ‘That is comforting.’ Rhakotis murmured. ‘What I do not understand though is the nature of this attack. This foe, if I recognise them correctly, are the Mercians, and yet we are far from their lands and have done nothing to provoke them. Calhoun is just a small village with meagre supplies of food and wine and anything else of worth.’

  ‘Perhaps, they thought it would be easier to annihilate us than take the road around. It does not seem they were expecting to awaken a village of warriors. There was too much excitement in their charge for ones anticipating death.’

  ‘When the fighting is done, we will scrape a survivor up from the battlefield and see what he has to say.’

  ‘That is the reason I risked sneaking up on you. I have spotted out their leader.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘He cut through two of our farmers like the wheat the farmers grow. Wulfstan and Keelot. Dispatched all too swiftly.’

  ‘I guess they must have really been farmers after all.’

  ‘And
this man is holding his own against those we know to be fighters. Albeit by retreating and alluding at every opportunity. Certainly, whatever he is seeking from this village, he intends to be alive to enjoy.’

  ‘Sounds like a lot of leaders I’ve known,’ muttered Rhakotis. ‘What does he look like and where can I find him?’

  ‘He has the looks of a snake. Yellow eyes, a forked tongue, and jaws that stretch to swallow a prey far larger than itself.’

  Rhakotis sighed. ‘Can you be more constructive?’

  ‘His hair is an ugly orange, like a sunset with the plague, and there is a gold ornamental band on his arm - a dragon.’

  ‘Orange hair and a dragon armband?’

  ‘That’s right.’ Cimber scoured the battlefield. ‘But I cannot point him out to you. As I said before, he is not the type to stand his ground.’

  ‘I’ll find him.’ Rhakotis ran out into the fight, cutting and slashing his way through Mercians and he was reminded once again that he was more at home on the battlefield than the village it was encroaching upon. The man Cimber had described soon became apparent. Orange hair and a gold armband. The man was marshalling his forces with cries in his Mercian tongue for a fresh surge at the villagers. True to form, however, he was standing back in amongst his soldiers rather than surging forward to inspire great deeds with his own sword. He spotted Rhakotis’s approach and was in two minds whether to stay or fight. Rhakotis hacked a path to him before a decision could be made. The two leaders came together with a crash of sword that jarred up their arms. Another swing, though Rhakotis was foxing with his. He ducked and sidestepped and exposed the Mercian leader’s ribs to a thrust. Not too close to the heart and lungs, owing to a desire to keep him alive. The Mercian dropped, wounded but enraged. He picked up a dead man’s sword and came again. Rhakotis stabbed into his wrist, eliciting a scream of pain. He kicked his legs out from under him and rammed his sword powerfully into the skin of his shoulder, again, not to kill him but to give the appearance of killing him. He stood over him and screamed fearsomely, his bloody sword raised victoriously in the air. It had the desired effect, for panic set in amongst the Mercian raiders. They turned into a fleeing rabble. Cimber had been right about the leader’s identity. This had been the truest test. Whether the leader be officially titled or not, there was often one fighter in an army who held the rest together and once taken out would lead to an unravelling like what happened to the weave of cloth when the vital knot was cut.

  The villagers of Calhoun looked to each other for the inclination to pursue and slaughter the fleeing Mercians; as a Roman general, Rhakotis would have given the order without hesitation, but this was his new life as a farmer and he held his tongue. He remained standing over the defeated leader, surveying the outer reaches of the battlefield until he was certain there was no element of staging in the enemy’s retreat. He turned to Cimber, who had come up to his side. ‘Just like the old days.’

  ‘The sword and my hand reunited like love struck cousins,’ Cimber replied.

  ‘A peculiar thought, but our work is not yet done. We have won the battle and yet have no idea as to its reason. Let’s take their leader somewhere quiet for a discussion.’

  ‘He will be heavy and messy to carry. You have plucked him with many holes.’

  ‘Well, we’re not going to stay here. With the battle done, the elderly and the women and children will start coming out onto the battlefield to wail and fuss over the fallen and it will be too noisy to concentrate on what we’re doing.’

  ‘The aspect of battle you enjoy least?’

  ‘Naturally so.’

  ‘Shouldn’t you at least check up on your own wife and son. Although I’m sure they’re safe, they would appreciate the gesture.’

  Rhakotis shook his head. ‘This is not the moment to play father. Roman soldiers are married to the lives of their comrades first, the death of their enemies second and the love of their families third.’ He prodded the vanquished Mercian leader with a boot tip. ‘Now just because we have decided to spare his life for the moment, it doesn’t mean he will be equally forthcoming in accepting our hospitality. I have learned from experience that men who have limited ability in ending their opponents’ lives may instead have boundless enterprise in saving their own. I would not afford him that opportunity easily.’

  ‘Fair enough. But we will not take him anywhere near my home. He is bleeding too much.’

  With an arm each, they dragged the Mercian to a grain store, which was almost empty after the long winter. The air reeked of rat faeces. They tossed the Mercian to the floor and Rhakotis kicked him in the ribs. ‘Hello, there.’ He turned to Camber on his way out the hut. ‘Keep an eye on him. I have a surprise to fetch.’

  The Mercian was too winded to pick himself up, leaving Cimber with nothing to do other than fold his arms and wait.

  Rhakotis returned soon after, and the surprise he had spoken of caused the Mercian to recoil back against the wall.

  ‘I thought you would feel that way. It is my pet devil. Have you seen anything like it?’

  The animal was tethered by chain to the end of a spear, which it was threatening to snap with its furious bucking. It was almost choking itself to death in its wild attempts to charge the Mercian.

  ‘Your bloody wounds are making it more excitable than usual,’ said Rhakotis, his voice straining with the exertion of restraining it. ‘One more step and the creature will be on you. Can you imagine what it will do to your face?’ He edged it closer still and the jaws snapped at the Mercian with a breath rancid with the odour of the undigested flesh within its belly. ‘When I found it, on the edge of the forest, one of our best farmers, Marcus Quintus had already been half-eaten - the top half. Arrows to the hind regions and heavy chains succeeded in subduing it. I kept it alive only because the anger I felt went beyond the lust to kill. I sliced its leg tendons to take the spring out of its step, but as you can see, I left its jaws and appetite intact.’

  ‘I know the place that spewed it out,’ replied the Mercian distraught, ‘the very place that has brought me here: Penycher Pit.’

  Rhakotis frowned. ‘You will need to make more sense than that to preserve your life.’

  ‘The creature is the dreadwolf. And capturing one is no simple feat. Should I assume you know nothing of it or the pit?’

  ‘You should assume we were simple farmers content to concern ourselves with our land until you attacked without provocation.’

  ‘And yet you defeated my men with ease.’

  ‘The reason is simple. Your soldiers fight like farmers. You picked the wrong village to harass.’

  ‘I know well enough what village this is,’ spat the Mercian. ‘I attacked it precisely because you are hardened warriors.’ He gathered his courage and sat up to face the dreadwolf. ‘Do as you will. There would be no point attempting to preserve a life for a day. For a decade I would consider it.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘If I return to my lands, I will certainly be put to death for this defeat. Rather than that I would join your village.’

  Rhakotis chuckled. ‘Are you offering your services as a slave? Well, this village was built for the free. So, you will need to sell something more valuable than your captivity if you are to continue drawing breath.’

  ‘I would be a free man and an equal. And there is a wife I would bring if she would come. For these things there is something I will be able to offer.’ He gestured to the dreadwolf. ‘I will help you harness all the power of your pet.’

  ‘I am no longer a soldier. Mad fury is not particularly useful in sowing seeds. So why would I have a use for it?’

  ‘You don’t understand. There are human versions of the dreadwolf. They call themselves the Brotherhood of Pink Gold. One day they will come this way and your village will be scorched.’

  ‘Wait here.’ Rhakotis dragged the dreadwolf outside and tethered it to the nearest tree. He shook out his aching arms and returned to the Mercian. ‘I have he
ard talk of a giant hole deep within Matholwich Forest.’

  ‘Yes, that is Penycher Pit. Named after the village nearby.’

  ‘I have heard of the village too, but for different reasons. It is said its chieftain is a farmer of rare knowledge and skill.’

  ‘If only that could be considered important.’

  Rhakotis snarled. ‘Then tell me what I should know.’

  ‘Magic has revealed itself in the form of pink gold. A power that strengthens and transforms. Penycher Pit is the source of it and in the possession of Saxon lords it is spreading out across the land.’

  ‘Did you think there is some here? Is that why you have attacked us?’

  The Mercian shook his head. ‘My ancestors were lords too until a series of tawdry scandals conspired to tarnish the family name. Things that do not bear mentioning, lest to say a good streak of madness runs through my bloodline. No longer able to be declared a lord on the strength of it, I was charged with returning my family name to favour by becoming a conqueror. Your village is known in Mercia as a last vestige of Rome in Britain. I was sent here to become a lord.’

  ‘By butchering us?’

  ‘Didn’t we make our intentions clear?’

  Rhakotis shrugged. ‘I was too busy cutting through flesh and bone to consider intent.’

  ‘If I had been allowed to obtain a measure of pink gold first, the result would have been different. A warrior with it in his possession cannot be defeated by one without.’

  Rhakotis let the Mercian feel the chill of his blade upon his neck. ‘Normally I would remove your head for telling such fanciful stories. The existence of the dreadwolf, however, has not been explained by any more convincing an idea.’

  ‘Such creatures have turned Matholwich Forest into a graveyard.’

  ‘A dark magic mined from the ground.’ Rhakotis scratched his chin. ‘Have you seen the pit?’

  ‘No, but I have heard much about it from a lord who returned to our lands having secured a pebble of pink gold. He is a sight to behold.’

  ‘Your kneeling before my sword is another sight to behold, is it not?’

  The Mercian’s voice hardened. ‘Word of this defeat will spread just as quickly as my men have scattered. The next to come this way will be the Brotherhood of Pink Gold. They will want their cup of Roman blood. Then you will experience true vengeance.’

 
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