Penycher pit, p.7
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       Penycher Pit, p.7

           Stuart Parker
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  Turnstone dropped into the driver’s seat and took the reins and whip. ‘You had better stick close to me, then. I once prepared a stew so agreeable to the Queen that she spared four men from the day’s appointed executions.’ He pointed into the carriage. ‘Secret recipes rolled up in scrolls, salted game hanging from hooks and exotic herbs arranged in jars. The means of appeasing our ruthless Queen.’

  He set the horses in motion with a crack of whip. They heaved out of the mud and quickly came to a steady pace. There was a bridge over a stream and the track moved through farmland and village to the open space of Queen Rachel Green. A place of ceremony, games and punishment, and, as was the case on this occasion, they were usually packed into the same day. A throng of villagers were clucking expectantly around a makeshift platform on which the morning execution was to take place. It had been held back from the more dramatic crack of dawn, for farmers had chores to attend to. Turnstone steered the carriage into a vantage point on the edge of the green, alongside a group of soldiers on horseback.

  The Queen’s Executioner stepped up onto the platform not long afterwards, brandishing his highly polished axe. He was a stocky black bearded man, moving slowly and dressed to strike fear in his long, black, hooded robes. The condemned man was already splayed out over the chopping block in the centre of the stage, guards to the sides of the platform gripping ropes bound to his wrists and ankles. The man was a filthy, long haired vagrant, his ripped and torn brown robes little more than rags. The Executioner stopped beside him and ceremoniously raised his axe over his head. A hush fell over the crowd. The Executioner paused to draw out the suspense and drama of the moment.

  ‘The Queen’s Executioner,’ Turnstone muttered. ‘His real name is Ledirre. But that was lost many years ago to the axe. I cooked for him in the days when he was still just a man. Maybe even more than a man. A dashing, chivalrous lord. Considered worthy enough to marry the Queen’s youngest, cleverest cousin. And that was indeed the direction love’s strings were tugging. Until, for whatever reason, the Queen ordered a different direction.’

  The Executioner’s axe came down with a resounding thud that sent the condemned man’s head tumbling into the awaiting pot. The Executioner removed his hood dramatically, allowing the stupefied rabble to gawk at his burning black eyes and he lifted the axehead to that level, snarling fiendishly as blood dripped off its edge. ‘This is a plain reminder,’ he thundered, ‘of the fate that awaits heresy. Rest assured my vigil is tireless and my cut is death.’

  Egren stepped sombrely up onto the stage with the posture of a weeping willow, shying away from looking at the executed vagrant. He shuffled to the front of the stage and cupped his hands to his mouth. ‘Queen Rachel has arrived in Penycher this day and to celebrate this grand moment in our village’s history, a tournament of hand to hand combat will follow the execution. The tournament is open to all comers and the winner will be rewarded by the Queen herself.’

  The crowd broke into enthusiastic applause.

  ‘Rewarded with a piece of pink gold, I wonder,’ Patrick murmured to Turnstone.

  ‘With some real gold more likely,’ Turnstone replied. ‘That is the one kind of gold Queen Rachel is not facing a shortage of.’

  ‘That’s fine. I prefer the old fashioned kind myself, anyway.’Patrick climbed down from the carriage.

  ‘Are you seriously intending to join in?’ queried Turnstone. ‘You should know there are Queen Rachel Greens in villagers all over her kingdom and blood invariably flows freely whenever she visits.’

  ‘That’s fine,’ Patrick called back as he headed towards the crowd. ‘It will be good preparation for the dreadwolfs,’

  Turnstone chuckled. ‘I would stay and watch but I must return to the Queen’s camp. There is a feast to cook and I am running out of pots. The Executioner just used my best one to catch the vagrant’s head in. I bet he chose it deliberately too.’ He angrily whipped his horses to take him away.

  Chapter 12

  The Need

  Mulchis Gaza staggered out of the shack of wood and straw with a bow and arrow in hand.

  It was early morning and he was barely awake. His thick black hair was a mess, his shoulders stooped and he was dressed in old robes that were too long and were almost tripping him up. He muttered an obscenity to himself and continued up the hill the shack was awkwardly perched upon. Dew had made the ground slippery and cold.

  Mulchis was moving towards the rising sun, the pale orange orb filling a gap in the distant mountain range, looking every bit an ethereal overseer of the land. As the grass became too long and the bottom of his robes too soggy, Mulchis stopped and with an ease that had previously seemed beyond him placed the arrow into the bow and fired it toward the sun. He held his position a moment, watching intently the arrow’s progress through the air until it had disappeared into the grass at the base of the hill. He took in a long breath and exhaled the vapour through his nostrils and turned away, slinging the bow over his shoulder as he relieved himself in the grass. He then started stiffly back for the shack, only to be given a jolt by the emergence of four shadowy figures who were now standing in his path. They had approached silently and the sunrise could only muster enough light to illuminate their imposing shapes.

  ‘Who are you?’ Mulchis called out.

  The laughter that came in reply was distinctive and all too familiar and always seemed to come at his expense. ‘What where were you shooting at, Mulchis?’ said Magnus Squillus. ‘The same thing you were pissing at? I don’t think the accuracy was any better.’

  ‘Is that you, Squillus?’ muttered Mulchis, unable to contain his surprise.

  ‘Sure is. And I have come with two friends that you may remember.’

  Mulchis walked to them, his eyes widening upon Rhakotis and Cimber. He reverently bowed to Rhakotis. ‘It’s an honour to have you at my home, General.’

  ‘Let’s have none of that,’ said Rhakotis. ‘I am a humble farmer now. But Squillus’s question is a reasonable one. What was the purpose of that arrow? Were you hunting game?’

  ‘Allow me to set a fire first, General. In this cold the words will only get stuck to the bridge of my mouth.’

  ‘Of course. Forgive us. We have been travelling fast and hard all night and that has kept us warm.’

  Mulchis went to the firewood stacked against the front wall of the shack and added some to the burnt out campfire just outside the shack door.

  ‘With the primitive construction of the premises,’ goaded Squalls, ‘it is difficult to make out where the firewood ends and the wall begins.’

  ‘If only we could have fought battles with insults,’ said Mulchis, ‘you would have led every charge.’

  ‘Well, if you are living alone in that shack, which I imagine you are, I would advise using the whole thing as firewood and just let it burn.’

  Mulchis snarled and suddenly descended into a coughing fit that had his cheeks darkening and tears coming to his eyes. He took a moment to regather himself and murmured, ‘As it so happens I did not lie alone last night.’

  ‘Oh, I did not realise you have a sister,’ chuckled Squillus.

  Rhakotis stepped between the two men before they came to blows. ‘There are two reasons we have come here,’ he said to Mulchis. ‘The first is to enlist your services in our quest.’ He looked him up and down and added doubtfully, ‘If you are up to it.’

  Mulchis took the remark as a challenge and set about arranging firewood upright as though it were a barricade to a siege. He then filled its gaps with kindling and took to hand the flint-stones lying beside them; he manically struck out sparks until the first tentative flames took hold. He stoked it with gentle breaths and with a smug smirk warmed his hands.‘And the second?’

  Rhakotis smiled fleetingly. ‘The second is the weapons that have been entrusted to you for safe keeping. It is time to bring them out of hiding.’

  Mulchis frowned. ‘We only recently moved them to a place where no one will dare go.’ His e
yes twitched apprehensively. ‘It didn’t end well.’

  ‘You had better explain.’

  Mulchis descended into another coughing fit. He waved a hand apologetically and with a shake of his head finally managed to regain his voice. ‘Not too long ago some travellers came by this way in a state of pure fear. Escaped slaves who had passed through Matholwich Forest. They spoke of fearsome, ungodly bears that tore their masters to pieces. Their tremulous voices left little doubt their wild stories had some truth attached. And it occurred to me that a place that provoked such fear was the ideal domain for outlaws. So the next morning I gathered a couple of friends and we agreed to reconnoitre the forest for ourselves.’

  Rhakotis crouched down by the fire to warm his hands, to relax his fingers that were tensed like they were set to strangle. ‘Was it Valitino?’

  ‘Yes, and Nero too. He insisted on bringing along his new woman friend. She had run off on her husband to be with him.’

  ‘Sounds like Nero, alright. So what happened?’

  ‘Nero knew of a cave on the cliffs of Lake Shikijoma and we travelled there by boat, taking all the Immunes weapons with us. The cave is halfway up the cliff and it took us a full day to haul the cargo up to it. That night we slept in the cave and were disturbed by the sound of a tumultuous storm upon the lake - it was inexplicable, for there was no wind or rain. In the morning we found our boat floating in pieces, completely destroyed. There was no choice then but to scale the remainder of the cliff and make passage through Matholwich Forest.’

  ‘We have business there, too,’ murmured Rhakotis. ‘What did you see there?’

  ‘Not much to begin with. We encountered a few deformed creatures, and more out of pity than concern cut off their heads. Not particularly appetising though, so we struck for Pollio’s Garden and the promise of the most delicious fruit in Britain. That’s when we became separated. Nero and Cokael first. They were love struck and prone to wandering off on any little whim. Valitino went to look for them and I made camp and waited. I waited for days and days. None of them came.’

  ‘Did you look for them yourself?’ queried Cimber.

  ‘A little, but I must admit I lacked the courage to stray far from the camp. Matholwich is no ordinary forest. It is full of the cries of strange animals and the horrible screams of ordinary people. An evil place. Finally, I could not take it anymore and I ran from the camp. I have never run so hard or so long in all my life.’

  The door to the rickety home opened and a woman stuck her head out. She had long black hair and pale white shoulders exposed amidst the blanket she was wrapped in. She was very attractive. ‘Mulchis?’ she murmured shyly.

  ‘Go back to bed, honey,’ said Mulchis. ‘Or dress yourself and come out by the fire. There is nothing to worry about; you are hosting a Roman general.’

  The woman glanced from man to man and said a collective good morning and closed the door behind her before there was opportunity to respond.

  Mulchis scratched at an elusive spot on his back, oblivious to the incredulous looks of his visitors.

  ‘So, our weapons are safe?’ said Rhakotis, eager to stay on subject. ‘We need to go get them. And we may catch up with some lost Immunes while we are there.’

  ‘Perhaps we should make do with the weapons we already have,’ Cimber muttered. ‘We do not have time for distractions.’

  Rhakotis glared. ‘We are fighting not for ourselves but for our fading empire. So, we will be armed as Romans. And besides, don’t let our little battle in Calhoun fool you. We have grown soft in our years of farming. There was a time when we could have won a war with nothing better than cooking utensils. But those days are behind us. We will need the best weapons we can get for the mission to come.’ Rhakotis returned his attention to Mulchis. ‘Should we approach the cave by land or water?

  ‘An overhang makes it impossible to climb down to the cave from the land. It can only be reached by ascent from the lake.’

  ‘Then water it is.’

  Mulchis pointed at Kaen, who had remained standing away from the fire’s warmth with his arm folded and his brow furrowed. ‘Your friend does not say much. Could it be that impending death is weighing heavily on his shoulders?’

  ‘He is our guide into Penycher Pit,’ said Squillus, ‘and he has not even been there before. What more is there to say?’

  ‘Well, if he doesn’t want to talk and he has no idea where he is going, he might as well have one of my Dragon Tear mushrooms. It will at least make him relaxed about being useless.’

  ‘Colourful name for a mushroom.’

  ‘Brought from Pollio’s Garden. I dealt with the loss of Nero and Valitino by snatching every last one I could find. I have been growing my own, but they do not compare to the real thing. Shall we breakfast?’

  ‘We do not need anything that will fog our purpose or twist our senses,’ said Rhakotis. ‘And speaking of which, you still have not explained that arrow shot. Was it target practice?’

  Mulchis shook his head. ‘Recently, Nero came to me in the most vivid of dreams and told me to shoot the heart of the rising sun and the gods will grant me wings to fly to his rescue.’

  ‘Your arrow clearly missed. So, let’s go fetch our swords.’

  Mulchis nodded sombrely. ‘Do you have a spare horse? We ate ours during the winter.’

  ‘Regrettably no,’ said Rhakotis. ‘You can ride upon mine for now.’

  Mulchis felt the honour of the offer. ‘Thank you, General. I will not say goodbye to my wife. I have learnt her language enough to tell her why I am with her, but it would be beyond my skills altogether to explain why I am leaving.’

  The five men started down the hill towards where their horses were tethered. The woman remaining behind watched the best she could through a crack in the door.

  Chapter 13

  The Queen’s Sacrifice

  Only three fighters were left standing on the field of combat upon Queen Rachel Green.

  Another twenty had either been thrown out or carried out. Smashed teeth, broken limbs, gouged eyes, and shredded skin had all been part of the day’s entertainment. And the entire village of Penycher was watching, intermingling with lords, soldiers and the fetching ladies-in-waiting of the Queen’s entourage. The Queen herself remained within her camp, which had been set up on the village’s northern fringe - it would not do for the Queen herself to associate with such a common combat trial - although there were rumours that she liked to don a disguise and slip in amongst the throngs at such events. The mood amongst the villagers was particularly festive and boisterous, the opportunity to take a moment’s leisure in a time of such peril gratefully accepted.

  Patrick the Axeman was one of the three combatants still on his feet. He was bloody and bruised, but his wooden sword had gotten the better of many of the fallen. The other two men in the combat circle were hulking brothers and had been teaming together through the battle, holding the centre ground, pummelling opponents to the ground with a force that left most in no state to get back up again. Their shirts were off, revealing powerful, sweaty bodies.

  ‘What are you waiting for, Moln and Tanin?’ shouted one of the villagers in the crowd. ‘Hammer the Irishman’s head into the ground.’

  Patrick was not going to wait for such directions to be acted upon. He rushed the brothers, hoping that an attack would catch them off guard. He swung his sword hard down on Moln, the larger of the two brothers, but the blow was blocked with such force the wooden blade snapped clean in half. Tanin saw his opportunity and charged at Patrick like a crazed bull. Patrick had learned Greek wrestling as a child and, no matter how large the opponent, he could turn his strength against him: he took Tanin down with an excruciating wrist lock, and was in the process of disarming him when he was scooped up by Moln and flung viciously out the ring. He crashed through the wildly screaming crowd and was immediately forgotten about as attention turned to the much anticipated clash of brother against brother.

  Patrick lay flat on hi
s back, trying to regain the air knocked from his lungs. A young woman stepped up over him. ‘Hello,’ she said.‘Are you alright?’ She was beautiful in a way Patrick had never seen before. The gold and red streaks in her hair, the svelte, milk white skin, the blue of a frosted winter’s sky in her eyes, were all spellbindingly remarkable. Her dress was a stunning sleek red and grey, the kind that only the finest dressmakers were capable of producing.

  ‘I heard there was a Queen somewhere nearby,’ Patrick murmured. ‘Should I bow?’

  The young woman smiled. ‘The Queen is not that near. I’ve been watching you. You fought courageously. Your forehead is bleeding though.’

  ‘Some of my opponents had claws for fingers.’

  ‘And thought their teeth were weapons. Quite a spectacle. Do you have any other wounds?’

  ‘There’s not much to see.’ Patrick lifted his shirt to reveal an assortment of cuts and scratches.

  The young woman winced. ‘You were being modest. Does it hurt?’

  Patrick felt the stickiness of his blood as he replaced his shirt. ‘I would be honoured to know who is asking.’

  ‘You are obviously too easily honoured. My name is Melania. I am a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. She sent me here to spot out a worthy subject.’

  ‘A subject for what?’

  ‘That is for the Queen to say.’

  Patrick glanced back at the combat ring where he could just make out the heads and flying fists of the two brothers beyond the tightly packed crowd. ‘One of those brothers will be the winner. Shouldn’t you be picking one of them?’

  ‘They are big and strong, to be sure, but they lack nimbleness. That is an important commodity, for there is always something stronger in these parts.’

  ‘I’m not sure I like the sound of this.’

  ‘Your name is Patrick, is it not? You have been employed by the chieftain as the village protector.’

  ‘Have you been asking about me?’

  Melania shrugged. ‘You do not look in any shape to be protecting at the moment. Fortunately, I know the recipe of a bathwater that will soothe such wounds as yours.’

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