Penycher pit, p.8
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       Penycher Pit, p.8

           Stuart Parker
 
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  Patrick frowned.‘A wizard’s potion?’

  ‘No, it isn’t. But I understand your trepidation. The wizard in this village is quite peculiar. Lost in that tower in a world of his own. He did not even deign to come down to greet his queen. I fear there will be reprisals for that. The Queen has certainly been in a bad mood ever since. Nonetheless, my remedy is not of a wizard’s design. My bath is drawn with a blend of herbs – the secrets of which were passed down to me by my mother. I think it is the first thing she ever taught me.’ Her forlorn look did not go unnoticed.

  ‘Very well,’ said Patrick. ‘If it is your own spell, I would be happy to submerge in it.’

  Melania nodded. ‘Good. And I trust you will behave yourself. Your bravery is evident but your reputation is questionable. A raider, a poacher, a bandit. Are these things true?’’

  ‘The poachers and outlaws of Matholwich Forest have mostly been digested by its beasts.’

  ‘You appear half-digested yourself. You will need that bath and a new shirt before I present you to the Queen. This way if you will.’

  She walked off quickly in her dress of royal splendour. Yes, Patrick thought, admiring her svelte figure, a bath would be nice.

  *

  The bathtub was forged of mirrored silver and was of such dimensions that Patrick could stretch his legs out in every direction. The bathwater was dominated by the scent and colour of ginger, though there were a myriad of other intriguing fragrances infused within the luxurious steam. Patrick was surprised that the delicate blend had endured the mud and blood washed from his body. Still, there was no longer the temptation to taste the exotic waters. Melania’s instruction had been to remain within until the water turned lukewarm. With it still steaming away, it promised to be a while yet. Patrick was drifting in and out of sleep, so very comfortable. And he did not stir even as he heard the flap of the tent open and feet move across the floor. Naked and unarmed amidst the Queen’s camp, it was inexplicable he could let his guard down so completely, but there was something about this water that had rendered him entirely at ease.

  ‘The tenderest loin in the soup,’ said the man as he jumped enthusiastically into the bath, tossing aside his robe and unleashing a large splash. ‘And the soup just got thicker.’

  The man had gaunt cheeks bled of colour; a prominent, sheer forehead that subsided with deep, ruminating eyes; and a long nose that bore the bends and bumps of violence.

  Patrick pushed back against his side of the bathtub. ‘Are you one of the Queen’s lords?’

  The man laughed. ‘Surely not. That bunch are busy practising their sword play for the battle they are about to wage. I, on the other hand, live my life without practice.’ The man stretched out his limbs luxuriously. ‘Do I disturb you? When I heard Melania had prepared one of her baths I simply could not resist.’ He took in a mouthful of water and spat it out through the gaps in his teeth. ‘If only it could do for my ragged soul what it does for superficial aches.’

  ‘Who are you?’

  ‘I am the Queen’s Sacrifice.’

  ‘The Queen’s what?’

  The man leaned back and gazed up at the roof of the tent. ‘You have not heard of me? I find it oddly refreshing that there are parts of Glywysing where my plight is not known. My duty as the Queen’s Sacrifice is to placate the murmurings of the hidden world as the Queen deems necessary. She is sensitive to the unseen, alert to the dangers they conceal. So, she sends me. To dine in a village stricken by plague. To toast a gathering of poisoners. To stroll through a forest with ambushers whispering in the trees. I tempt fate on the Queen’s behalf. Recently, I have been quite busy. She is a particularly superstitious traveller.’

  The Queen’s Sacrifice lifted his chest above the waterline and inspected the cuts and grazes upon it. ‘Can you see the pattern? It is a serpent’s tail imprinted on my skin. A serpent that I wrestled with. Strike me dead if I’m lying.’

  ‘A serpent?’

  ‘The bath I took before this one was in Merdel’s moat.’ The Queen’s Sacrifice chuckled. ‘That was far less warm and cosy.’

  ‘You must be brave to venture into such domains.’

  ‘It was the Queen’s command. She fears that Merdel’s powers may be so great he no longer needs to fear her. She sent me to test this idea.’

  ‘And what did you find?’

  ‘Merdel’s defences are a quicker death than the plague and less preferable. That is what I learned.’

  Patrick leaned forward for a closer look at the red-raw lines emblazoned on the man’s flesh.‘An attractive pattern. You could be promoted to the position of Queen’s Ornament.’

  The Sacrifice frowned. ‘I will ignore that remark. This is not the arena to battle errant tongues.’

  The tent flaps were abruptly pulled open by two brightly attired court guards. ‘Kneel before the Queen!’ they declared.

  Queen Rachel strode forthrightly past them into the tent, wearing a bright purple velvet gown and holding a gold sceptre in long black-varnished fingers. Her ginger brown hair was clamped tightly by bejewelled combs and her grey eyes glowered from amidst a face both plump and tight. As her eyes intently locked upon the two men in the bath, crow’s feet appeared around her eyes, penetrating the thick sheen of white makeup. The Queen’s entourage meanwhile squeezed into the tent around her, jostling for position as near to her as they could get. Recovering from the initial shock of this visit, the Queen’s Sacrifice sprung onto his knees in the centre of the bath, bowing to the queen until his chin was touching the water. Patrick realised he had better follow suit: Melania had been his image of what the perfect queen might look like, but he recognised reality when he saw it and suspected the Queen’s Executioner would be in amidst the entourage already keenly sizing up his neck.

  The Queen stared inertly at her naked subjects a moment longer. ‘Resume your bath,’ she commanded.

  Patrick dared a glance past her to see that she was the most indifferent but by no means only female in the tent. There were ladies-in-waiting with giggles and blushes in equal measure. Melania was amongst them, wearing a pronounced grin which she was trying to hide behind her hand. Patrick slipped off balance on his way to the far corner of the bathtub, creating a splash that the lip of the bath did not fully contain.

  The Queen, however, ignored the water that landed perilously close to her velvet slippers, her gaze intent upon the Queen’s Sacrifice. ‘You were brave today, Sacrifice. But there is further work to be done.’

  ‘Yes, my Queen.’

  ‘The Executioner has informed me that he barely heard a shriek amongst the crowd when he decapitated the local vagabond. It seems my subjects are too choked with their fear of the unknown to feel due reverence for their rulers. Swimming around Merdel’s moat will not be enough to restore it. In normal circumstances I would have my lords go out and dismember one of those foul beasts in the forest.’

  ‘A dreadwolf, Your Highness,’ informed one of her stolid advisers with a deep bow.

  ‘Yes, one of those creatures. I fear, however, if my men are not successful, it may make matters even worse. Don’t you think so?’

  The Sacrifice knew better than to answer one of the Queen’s rhetorical questions. He only wished he could dress, for the Queen’s attention was fast turning the water cold.

  ‘What is required is to humiliate the beast,’ said the Queen with unflinching eyes. ‘I want its face smeared with its own bodily filth. That will take its prestige away. And I will have my reverence back. So, that is what you must do.’ She studied Patrick dispassionately. ‘There should be a witness. A local. Someone to spread word of what has occurred.’

  ‘I have certainly witnessed many a thing in that forest over the years,’ said Patrick.

  The Queen returned her attention to the Sacrifice. ‘Usually I do not require you to survive the tasks that I set. It is right that in Fate’s lap you rest. On this occasion, however, it would be entirely unhelpful if the dreadwolf made a meal of you. So, obl
ige it with a good dose of its faeces and run as hard as you can. If you cannot outrun it, you have my permission to kill it - better it dead than you.’

  ‘Yes, my Queen,’ said the Sacrifice reverently.

  ‘I am glad to see you clean but as soon as your bath is done it will be time to get dirty again. You are to leave at once. You have until nightfall tomorrow to complete your errand. If you fail to return by then, I will assume that Fate has abandoned you at last. Is it understood?’

  The Sacrifice sprung up to a kneeling position and bowed. ‘Completely, my Queen.’

  ‘I wish you Fate’s favour.’ Queen Rachel promptly departed the tent and her entourage, with a few mischievous parting glances at the two naked men, filed out behind her. Melania remained behind. She smirked as the Queen’s Sacrifice collapsed back into the bath. ‘I trust you have found my bathwater invigorating. As sinister as Matholwich Forest has become, there are some very interesting herbs growing within it.’

  ‘If only it wasn’t such a spectacle,’ bemoaned the Sacrifice.

  Melanie frowned. ‘We are living in dangerous times, so do not expect a quiet bath. The Queen has granted you two of her finest horses, Omen and Dusk. They are fed and watered. After you finish tossing around dreadwolf faeces I would suggest another bath.’ Her attention turned to Patrick. ‘Do not defy the Queen’s wishes, you are to be a witness only. The Queen’s Sacrifice should be left to the judgement of fate. If you do not like it, you should stay in this bath until your blood has completely cooled.’

  Patrick stood up, and ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Just a witness?’ he said teasingly.

  Melania watched him a moment before marching out of the tent.

  ‘Is she the reason you’ve been made a party to this?’ murmured the Queen’s Sacrifice dourly. ‘Or is it because you’re an authority on dreadwolf droppings?’

  ‘You’ll spoil my mood,’ replied Patrick.

  The Queen’s Executioner collapsed his head despairingly against the lip of the bath. ‘I’m about to undertake an errand that will leave me with shit on my hands, so what mood is it am I spoiling?’

  Patrick climbed out of the bath and went to the towel and fresh clothes that had been prepared for him in a neat pile. The clothes were made of soft sheep’s wool and leather. Almost miraculously, having staggered into the bath he was now drying himself free of pain. He felt the warm comfort of the well-made clothes. ‘I will obey the Queen’s command and remain a non-interventionist observer,’ he said, tossing away the damp towel, ‘at least until the dung starts being thrown. Then you may appreciate some help. I’m going to fetch my axe.’

  Chapter 14

  The Dead Village

  The rancid smell of death was wafting out from the village of Elchit.

  There was no drifting smoke to suggest a battle, no panic stricken residents fleeing with tales of woe. To Rhakotis it was unsettlingly odd. The marks of carriages, horses and men could offer a detailed account to his seasoned eyes. Death without battle, however, was beyond the arts of the Immunes general.

  The silence amongst the five riders had grown heavy. Kaen, sitting stiffly upon his horse, murmured, ‘The last time I encountered such an odour, I was young and a Roman legion was passing through the area, collecting taxes on their way back home. One of the villages had decided not to pay up. There wasn’t anyone left to pay their taxes after retribution was extracted. Not even the women and children.’

  ‘And yet you are comfortable riding with Romans now?’ replied Rhakotis.

  ‘It was not my village. My father is a collector of taxes too. He may have appreciated the power the Romans summoned. He may have even taken on board some of their lessons. I certainly don’t recall him speaking ill of it. And, besides, you are clearly not a tax collector.’ He pointed to a distant fork in the forest track. ‘Elchit is just over the rise. But there are roads around it, other ways to Lake Shikijoma.’

  ‘Nonetheless, we will continue this way,’ affirmed Rhakotis.

  ‘To acquire a horse of my own, I would gladly risk it,’ chimed in Mulchis, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of the saddle behind Rhakotis. ‘Anyway, it seems to me all roads lead to death in these parts.’

  The horses were requiring coercion, seemingly also sensing the ill tidings in the village ahead. Further along the road, the village of Elchit came into view. There were ten rings of thatched straw and mud huts crowding around a central amphitheatre with tilled fields predominantly to the north. There was no sign of life, nor the source of the air’s grisly funk. The road began to descend towards it. Two ram heads impaled on stakes marked the entrance to the village. The Immunes stopped there. Although heavily pecked at by birds and terrestrial scavengers, the remaining flesh upon the skulls was not yet rotten - the rams heads had likely been there no more than two or three days.

  ‘Some kind of warning?’ muttered Mulchis.

  ‘Well, I don’t suppose it’s a promise of hospitality,’ replied Squillus.

  ‘Most telling,’ said Kaen, ‘are the black ribbons tied underneath. ‘Do you see? They are warnings of plague. That is what has decimated the village.’

  ‘Unfortunate.’ Rhakotis dismounted and ripped a strip off his goat wool undershirt to cover his mouth.

  ‘So, you are still venturing in there?’ said Kaen incredulously, but then a realisation struck him. ‘You have a friend?’

  ‘Not a friend, a fellow Immunes. His name is Fabius Antius. I would have his horses and I would have the man too if he is willing. He is a great Roman general and was my teacher in warfare. I would dearly appreciate his counsel now.’

  ‘We will all go,’ said Squillus.

  ‘No,’ replied Rhakotis firmly. ‘I will accept one companion if there is an offer, but the others will remain here. To preserve yourselves. The weight of our mission is such that I would not pass into the afterlife easily if I was not sure it would continue.’

  ‘Pick your companion, Rhakotis,’ said Cimber, ‘for we are all willing’.

  Rhakotis nodded. ‘You’ll remain behind and lead the party if Squillus and I do not return.’

  Squillus eagerly swung off his horse and wrapped a silk cloth over his mouth. Then he drew to hand one of his two swords. ‘Let’s go.’

  Rhakotis faced those remaining behind. ‘Remember, no matter whether the opponent is one or one hundred thousand, the heart of the Roman remains the same size.’ He quickly caught up with Squillus in their approach of the village.

  *

  The source of the horrific odour had revealed itself. Wrapped in bed sheets and togas the bodies were of all shapes and sizes, from tiny infants to desperately fat adults. Although the material was all white, there was not a single drop of blood to be seen. And yet the entire population of the village seemed to be there in death. Most puzzling to Rhakotis and Squillus was the way the bodies had been carefully placed along the centre of the cobbled main road that wound a course through the village. Each body was neatly placed in line and with an equal space between each. As they edged along the road with their swords at the ready, Squillus murmured, ‘It is as though the dead bodies are marking a trail.’

  Rhakotis grunted curtly. It reminded Squillus that this was personal. ‘We can either follow the trail to the end or seek out Fabius Antonius’s home. Do you know the way?’

  ‘Elchit has become a village of death and the only indication of life is this macabre arrangement of corpses. So, we follow it to its end.’

  ‘Yes, General.’

  The road was descending deeper into shadow as it narrowed and the houses lining either side grew taller and denser. Rhakotis had moved out ahead of Squillus, following the line of corpses without letting himself focus on any given one. He feared he knew Fabius Antius well enough that just a stiffened hand protruding from its shroud, marked with a lifetime of soldiering, would be enough to give him away. The question that kept nagging away at him was how these bodies could be left to rot undisturbed? There was not the slightest trace of a
wolf or a vulture having scavenged amongst them. Rhakotis felt it in the pit of his stomach - the complete absence of natural order.

  The road opened up into a spacious courtyard and the trail of bodies stopped. A bricked Roman bathhouse lay ahead. Its grand scale was at odds with the rest of the village - as though what had begun as lofty ambitions at the heart of the village had degenerated into haphazardly erected frames at its edges. The ugliness of what had been encountered to get there conspired to amplify the bathhouse’s beauty to breathtaking proportions. Rhakotis and Squillus paused a moment to take in the spectacle. The bathhouse walls were lavished in vibrant paints of white and red and superbly detailed mosaics depicting gods and emperors alike. The broad outer walls suspended by pillars of resplendent marble. The courtyard leading up to it was resplendent with polished opalescent ceramic tiles and it bore a wide assortment of exercise equipment, including a punching bag suspended from the entrance archway, dumbbells, stone balls, a pommel horse, and a fully laden sword rack. In the corner of the courtyard there was a table with drinking flasks and bowls of dates. Near to them were a spread of lounge chairs facing the bathhouse. The sun was casting long shadows from the chairs across the courtyard and with them was the outline of a hand fluttering a fan. Rhakotis and Squillus stopped and stared at it with an icy chill - in the presence of so much death, a sign of life had never been so unnerving.

  ‘Who is there?’ called out Rhakotis.

  ‘I am Lord Harn,’ replied the man in a deep gruff voice, remaining hidden behind his chair. ‘Are you slaves or free men? Come over here and show yourselves.’

  The two Immunes edged that way. The man was occupying the nearest chair and was basking in the sunshine, wearing only a loin cloth. His physique was the image of the Zeus statues at each of the colonnades. His skin was glistening with oils and perspiration. His fluttering fan at work upon it was an ostentatious green silk. He was feeding himself dates from a pottered bowl on a side table.

  ‘At last, some guests,’ Harn said, straightening up in his chair, his eyes flittering between Rhakotis and Squillus. ‘Did you follow my trail? I was wondering how long it would be until my invitation was taken up. And judging by your long noses and haughty airs, you are Romans no less.’ He saluted them with a glass of white wine. ‘Welcome to the pinnacle of your empire. The best bathhouse in the kingdom, though it has seen better days. Have you come for a bath? A wrestle first? Aren’t those the Roman ways of unwinding?’

 
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