Penycher pit, p.6
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       Penycher Pit, p.6

           Stuart Parker
 
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  ‘Maybe we should lop your head off, Mercian,’ said Cimber. ‘That will stop your idle threats. But tell me, Mercian, how do you connect that beast out there with pink gold? Has it been carrying it around in its mouth like a dog with a bone?’

  ‘The magic is absorbed,’ the Mercian said. ‘It is not only dreadwolfs you will find in Matholwich Forest. It is said there are bears so enormous they have been named Tar, after the god of hate and fury. And there are dragons, too.’

  Cimber laughed. ‘Are dragons hawks transformed? Or merely crows?’

  The Mercian gritted his teeth. ‘End this world for me now if you will. It would be fitting for my last view upon it to be a couple of mocking fools.’

  ‘Leave him, Cimber,’ grunted Rhakotis. ‘Join me outside.’ He stepped out of the grain store and sucked in a lungful of fresh air. He gave the growling dreadwolf a long, hard look. The creature had the jaws and muscles to rival a lion, but the evil fury in its eyes was without equal. Rhakotis glanced at Cimber. ‘I have fought campaigns to the edges of the empire and beyond and have never encountered a creature so fierce.’

  ‘Or a warrior.’

  ‘The real question is could we defeat a man of such ilk?’

  Cimber smirked and slapped Rhakotis on the arm. ‘We could try. The biggest challenge, however, might be in swallowing the tale he is offering.’

  Rhakotis shook his head gravely. ‘Such gold was mentioned in the writings of the great Catalina a millennium ago. Deposits were found in the Desertum Africanum and were soon accompanied by scorpion plagues that decimated villages to a man. Catalina postulated that the pink gold falls to earth from the sky every thousand years. I took it as entertaining myth until I saw this beast set upon our friend Marcus. What the pink gold did to the desert scorpions it is doing to the forest creatures of Matholwich.’

  Cimber shrugged. ‘Let’s talk some more with our new friend.’ He led the way back into the grain store, finding the Mercian inspecting his sword wounds.

  ‘If this pink gold is as you say,’ said Cimber, ‘how can we get our hands on some? I do not suspect we will be welcomed into the pit of Saxon lords.’

  ‘There is another way. The first person to find the pink gold has taken the largest share. He has a whole war-chest full of it. And he is not a warrior.’

  ‘Who is he then?’

  ‘A wizard.’

  ‘Where is he now?’

  ‘He has taken refuge in an old Roman tower on the edge of Penycher.’

  ‘Why hasn’t he already been relieved of his horde?’

  ‘The tower is protected by serpents from within its moat. Death has come quickly to those who have sought to cross it.’

  Cimber chuckled. ‘A wizard with his very own Pompeii’s Tower? And serpents for companions. It does sound a place worth visiting.’

  ‘I will take you there,’ said the Mercian. ‘It will make a refreshing change being in the company of men who fear death so little.’

  ‘If we did fear death,’ said Rhakotis, ‘I’m sure we wouldn’t accept you among us quite so easily. A knife in the back, is the most likely outcome of embracing you.’

  ‘The Mercian way is the full frontal assault you have just experienced, however crude it may be. I offer myself without duplicity. And it would be with a name of my choosing.’

  ‘Naming is for parents and priests.’

  ‘They have had their chance,’ replied the Mercian. ‘There are people who carry marks that grow into tumours and spell the end of them. In my case, it is my name.’

  ‘Your family bloodline is as bad as that?’

  ‘The name I choose is Kaen. I would take that or execution.’

  Rhakotis shrugged. ‘I would execute you for invading my village, not for having a peculiar name.’ He grinned and sheathed his sword. ‘After a battle it is common to dress our wounds. A new name could be considered just another wrapping. So, now that we have settled on your name and a reason to spare your life, it is time to get busy. Normally, we would take a few days to recover from a battle, to attend burials and rest weary bodies. But on this occasion there would be too many villagers wanting your burial to be first. Thus, we will leave just as soon as you can pick yourself up.’

  Kaen battled up onto his feet, grimacing with the effort. ‘I will require a walking stick.’

  ‘I will fetch one off the first old man I come across,’ snapped Cimber, glibly.

  ‘Forget the stick,’ interjected Rhakotis. ‘We will take horses. We need to move quickly.’ He turned for the door only for Cimber to step in the way. ‘I must say, it won’t strike a good picture, riding off so soon after a battle with one of the enemy amongst us,’ he muttered.

  ‘It is of no consequence how it appears,’ said Rhakotis dismissively. ‘We will either return to the village in possession of treasure or in need of burial ourselves. Either way will speak for itself.’

  ‘Are you sure you would not like a moment to say goodbye to your family? You butcher paths through men the way an agitated wind stirs up sand, but your wife is still your finest achievement.’

  Rhakotis shook his head. ‘In this life I was destined to dwell on the forest floor amongst the roaches and rodents. As a husband I have failed to raise her any higher than that. She understands there will be days such as this.’

  Cimber slapped him on the arm. ‘To the horses then.’

  Chapter 10

  The Instructor

  The woman climaxed with a groan of ecstasy - not so loud that the village could hear, but enough for her own ears.

  She rolled off Magnus Squillus and smiled. ‘My husband is busy perfecting his sword thrusts. I only wish this is the technique you taught him today.’

  Squillus chuckled. ‘If you would like to pass on the lesson it is up to you.’

  The woman’s name was Jern. She was a voluptuous ginger haired woman and her presence in Squillus’s bed was proof of how complacent he had grown with life. She ran her fingers up and down his rather hairy stomach.

  ‘We have made love but it upsets me that there are still things about you I don’t understand,’ she said.

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘How you can get your skin so soft and fresh smelling after working all day, and how you can wrestle the ugliest men of the tribe and yet remain a superbly crafted Roman statue at day’s end.’

  Squillus gazed up at the roof of the damp cold hut. After lying with a woman as fine as this, he needed to remind himself the world would be no better for the moment. He did, however, prefer lying with a woman who had not yet learnt the lesson herself - having not yet tasted bitterness, she would still taste sweet.

  ‘Your husband is not a dedicated swordsman,’ he warned. ‘You cannot rely on him to practice long.’

  Jern sighed. ‘No, he doesn’t practice long. Short and brutish. That is what found me looking for instruction.’ She rolled out of the bed and gathered up her clothes. Her skin was pale, soft and fresh. Squillus gave it a final admiring glance before it was covered. He rolled over then and was immediately asleep.

  He was not the type to sleep with a dagger at hand. If someone took his life from such a position there would be no glory in it, which meant there would be no shame in it either. He was sleeping deeply enough that it took a sword prodding his ribs to wake him. Was it still Jern? His eyes opened lethargically to a tall figure standing over him in the darkness. Obviously a man.

  ‘You may need a sharper sword,’ Squillus grumbled unconcerned. ‘It doesn’t seem to be penetrating.’

  The man chuckled. ‘You never were afraid of death. I suppose with your fighting skills you didn’t have to be.’

  Squillus’s eyes shot open as he recognised the voice. ‘Rhakotis, is that you?’ He sprung upright, shedding hay from the bed to the floor.

  ‘It is, my friend. And you have not changed. I can see that even in this light.’

  ‘It has been too long. Two years or more.’

  ‘It could have been a little sooner, but
I thought I should remain outside until your friend’s departure. Judging by the stealthy nature of it, I would say she is someone else’s wife.’

  ‘The village chief’s to be specific. For an instant, I thought you might have been him.’

  ‘I am a village chief. Fortunately for you, it is a different village.’

  ‘So, what brings you here? Surely there is nothing in this village that your own would be lacking. You can speak freely, for I don’t lay claim to anything here except the coin that I earn. How did you find me anyway?’

  ‘You have agents in all the markets of significance in these parts chanting your name and extolling the virtues of your lessons. Killing like a centurion.’

  ‘A fine skill to have.’

  ‘But do you still have it yourself? Teachers grow soft as their voices harden.’

  ‘Can I still kill like a Roman?’ The voice darkened. ‘It depends if I have been to that village before. I teach my students every sword thrust I know, so to beat them I would need to learn one more.’

  ‘One may no longer be enough. You may need ten.’

  ‘What do you mean, Rhakotis?’

  ‘There is a precious metal called pink gold. Have you heard of it? It is said to have magical properties and the best of the Saxons warriors are getting their hands on it.’

  Squillus chuckled. ‘Magical properties? What is the nature of the herbs you grow, farmer?’

  ‘Marcus Quintus was savagely torn to pieces by a wolf the likes of which I have never seen before. Truly procured by the devil. If it was influenced by this substance, it is a power that cannot be ignored.’

  Squillus swung out of his bed, naked except for his boots, which often he lacked the patience to remove. ‘A man like you does not take trips to warn people. If there is power at the table, you will want the biggest serving.’

  ‘Roman’s magic was always its glory. And the magic has gone. It’s not for nothing I became a farmer.’

  Squillus gathered up his clothes. ‘Magic gold? I have often dreamed of such things only to wake up with my hands empty. But then, if the gods really have gifted the earth with such a prize it was surely with the expectation that a river of blood would flow from it. And we will do our part.’

  ‘We must try. Pink gold could mend our fractured armies. Get them strong enough to return the Roman Empire to these shores.’

  ‘We will require the best of weapons: our legion swords.’

  ‘That is why we’re here. When the Immunes disbanded, it was in your keeping we left our uniforms and weapons. I do not dare to hope you have kept them, constantly travelling as you are, and when being found in possession of such a stockpile is the surest way to being executed as an outlaw.’

  Squillus put on his shirt and pants and completed the outfit with a soft lamb skin vest and a rope belt. ‘With such dangers about I took the only logical step available to me. I passed them on.’

  ‘Who to?’

  ‘Mulchis Gaza.’

  Rhakotis frowned. ‘He is the most sickly soldier I have ever known. Even in the thick of battle I could hear his sneezes. And now he’s just a thief.’

  ‘He prefers to think of himself as a raider.’

  ‘He wonders the forests stealing from hapless travellers.’

  ‘We can’t all be farmers.’

  ‘No, but he coaxes away men who are trying to be. The poor wife of Valitino, with two daughters to raise, has been waiting in Calhoun many months for her husband to return.’

  ‘They have been running together with Nero, giving the Saxons quite a hard time. I guess, they just aren’t ready to give Britain up.’

  ‘And you don’t know where Mulchis has put our weapons?’

  ‘I could not let myself know. I have a weakness for poor odds and without being under your command the only substitute is gambling.’ Squillus impulsively readjusted his belt, pulling tight the rope as though an act waged against an opponent’s neck. ‘Killing has brought many beautiful objects into my possession. But with my conscience worthless, the value of anything drops to nothing. I feared I would sacrifice our armoury for just another roll of the dice.’

  ‘Then we must go find him. Do you know where he is?’

  ‘I think so. He lives with a woman on top of a hill. We can be there by sunrise if we leave now.’

  ‘Well, if you have no more husbands’ wives to attend to, that would be agreeable.’

  ‘Are there any other of the old Immunes joining us?’

  ‘There is Cimber and a Mercian guide named Kaen.’

  Squillus’s disappointment was plain. ‘In your last command you had thirty two crack men. I’m sure many of them would gladly serve under you again.’

  ‘I trust they have found something better to do. As a commander I may have shown them noble causes to die for, but it is their wives and children that are worth living for.’

  ‘I wouldn’t know. I can only tell you about other men’s wives and children.’

  ‘I do not take you for granted. If you do not want to be taken away from this life, just point me in the direction of Mulchis.’

  ‘Are you joking? I dressed more quickly than if you were an enraged husband. All the things I am: angry, hungry, dirty, restless, reckless, heartless, they only feel right when I am a soldier.’

  Rhakotis laughed. ‘You haven’t changed, Squillus. Well, let’s go soldier.’

  Chapter 11

  The Stewman

  Patrick the Axeman was awoken by an axe splicing through wood near to his head.

  He sprung up, reaching for his own axe, and was relieved to find it still beside him where he had left it.

  It was early morning and the campfire had retained enough heat to shield him from the chill of the dew. The man who had disturbed him was chopping firewood at the pile of logs Patrick had brought in from Matholwich Forest. The man was tall and burly and his hair and clothes were the colour of straw. He had a neatly trimmed brown beard and short, expedient facial features.

  ‘Forgive me for startling you,’ the man said upon realising Patrick had been awakened. ‘The chieftain pointed me this way in the quest for firewood. Your name is Patrick, isn’t it?’ He picked up the two most recent split pieces of wood and tossed them onto a small, neatly stacked pile he was building. ‘I noticed the head of a retched vermin amongst the remnants of last night’s dinner. A creature the likes of which I have never encountered before. That is why I am so keen to build up my stocks of firewood: there are so many new things in this village I would like to cook.’

  ‘Who are you?’ Patrick muttered croakily.

  ‘My name is Turnstone. I am the Queen’s Stewman.’

  ‘A stewman? I didn’t know there was such a thing?’

  ‘Well there is, and it’s a precarious position. The Queen demands new flavours constantly and it’s not wise to disappoint.’ The man set up another log upright at his feet. The axehead moved fast and hard, splitting the log clean in two.

  ‘Nice stroke,’ observed Patrick.

  ‘I’m not the most proficient with the axe in her entourage. The Queen’s Executioner holds that distinction. Indeed, he is putting his axe to work in the village on this very morning. Everyone is invited.’

  ‘Whose head is getting lopped off?’

  ‘A destitute beggar with too much to say. He was mouthing off his ideas of the origin of pink gold. Normally it would be of no concern. But he made the mistake of doing it in the market place. Wrong place, wrong time.’

  ‘Why is that?’

  ‘There was a man shopping around there. Not for produce or fabric. Rather, a suitable head to cut off. And he knew a bargain when he saw one. Of course, I am referring to the Queen’s Executioner.’

  ‘That is unfortunate. And what theory was the vagabond espousing?’

  ‘That rocks falling to earth from the heavens are like seeds in the fields. They are what bring life to earth. They are what brought our first ancestors. And in the same way they are what brought pink go
ld.’

  Patrick frowned. ‘What has happened in this village is so peculiar that no theory will sound too bizarre.’

  ‘What he said has been declared blasphemous. And the more devout axes are not interested in firewood.’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘With Queen Rachel’s arrival it is safest to accept pink gold was sent by the Lord Almighty for her glory and the glory of her lords across Glywysing.’

  ‘That is what I should believe? The vermin whose head you so admired charged at me from out of a rabbit hole.’

  Turnstone looked the head over. ‘A rabbit with lion’s teeth. Interesting. May I have it for my stew?’

  ‘If you want.’ Patrick frowned. ‘Pink gold and all these diabolical creatures appeared at the same time. And they are in this land only. Having them around is dangerous enough without the risk of being executed for querying their presence.’

  ‘A fair complaint. Would you like a ride into town? You can compare for yourself which is the more dangerous. The execution is only moments away.’

  ‘Alright.’

  Turnstone picked up his pile of firewood and carried it over to his carriage, which was about the largest Patrick had ever seen. Its six horses were waiting nervously, spooked by the forest beyond the meadow. Turnstone patted them, more to measure their state than out of affection. Their strength would be tested, pulling the carriage through the bog adhering to its wheels. The cold drizzle starting to fall again would not make it any easier.

  Turnstone looked at Patrick with still that probing eye. ‘Egren says you are the son of an Irish raider. Not of the Attacotti tribe, I trust. St Jerome tells us of their barbaric cannibalistic ways. It would be a shame to be a descendant of such depravity.’

  ‘It would be a shame to be the descendant of a Saxon lord,’ snapped Patrick as he joined him at the carriage, ‘for they are servants in a big hole and generally end up being buried in small ones.’

  Turnstone smirked. ‘I appreciate that ideas are like flavours and that life is bland with only a few, but I doubt there is another of Queen Rachel’s party of such a mind.’

  ‘I will speak freely,’ Patrick replied. ‘Otherwise I would be no better than a slave.’

 
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