Penycher pit, p.9
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       Penycher Pit, p.9

           Stuart Parker
 
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  Rhakotis took a wide stance, withdrawing his second sword and spat out the taste of defeat before it could even register. ‘The Roman ways you will see soon enough. First, explain yourself and the gruesome circumstances that have brought us here.’

  Harn licked his next date and ate it sumptuously. ‘I assume you have names too.’

  ‘Rhakotis and Squillus.’

  ‘Fine Roman names. No wonder you still think you are masters of these lands. Able to give orders.’ Harn swung around to glare at them with his piercing green eyes. ‘But the Roman times are finished. You should have escaped from these shores with your countrymen when you had the chance. All that is left for those Romans left behind is slavery or death. Either would please me greatly. But I have tired of fetching my own wine from the cellars and putting the dates into my mouth. That is truly why I have invited you here.’

  ‘We choose death,’ snapped Squillus enraged. ‘But not ours. It will be yours.’

  ‘Bastards.’ Harn jumped to his feet, snatching up a serrated broadsword from the sword rack and charged with a terrifying roar shredding his throat.

  Rhakotis stepped at him first with a fearsome strike that until the last whisper of distance was set to cut Harn in halves. That Harn could elude the blade so late and yet so easily was merely the latest shock in the cursed village. Rhakotis instinctively knew that an opponent capable of moving so quickly could wreak havoc. He turned to where he thought Harn would be, his sword raised in a defensive position, but Harn had already stepped inside it and cracked Rhakotis’s head hard with the hilt of his sword.

  Squillus was looking for an opening for his own sword thrust, and it was the collapse of Rhakotis that presented it. Harn effortlessly ducked the oncoming blade without even glancing its way, and he sprung at Squillus, striking him in the temple with a rock hard elbow - unconsciousness was immediate.

  *

  A friendly voice was calling to Rhakotis, beckoning back him from the cold hollow sleep that had consumed him. It was a long journey out of it, but Rhakotis remained at ease, for he had experienced the situation more times than he cared to remember and as far as he was concerned it was not much different to a hangover. He recognised the voice as Squillus’s and took it as the final confirmation that he was indeed still alive.

  ‘Where are we?’ he muttered croakily as he managed to pry his eyes open.

  ‘Inside the Elchit bathhouse,’ replied Squillus beside him. ‘We are suspended from the ceiling like lambs about to be slaughtered. And my head is aching terribly.’

  Rhakotis looked up to the rope binding their wrists to the ceiling hooks. ‘I cannot comprehend how that man overpowered us so comprehensively. We have never been bested like that.’

  ‘All that oil he basted himself in made him slippery, that is all.’

  ‘Ha, perhaps you’re right. But keep such observations between us. With our hands tied, there is no point trying to provoke him with our mouths.’

  ‘If he wanted to kill us, it wasn’t our sword play that prevented it. Could it simply be he wants to gloat before despatching us to the afterlife? I doubt it is for my lessons in combat that he preserves us.’

  Rhakotis sucked in a deep reviving breath. ‘We’ll find out.’

  Harn entered the room not long after with his feet as quiet on the floor as was his shadow on the wall. ‘Ah, both my little warriors are awake now,’ he said. ‘It would have been sooner only I hit you harder than I intended. Or was it that your skulls were thinner than I anticipated?’

  Loosely dressed in a pale blue toga and with his skin glistening and soft with oil, he was still looking every bit a Roman. His fighting skills could have conquered far and wide and yet he had settled for a bathhouse? Talking was still too painful for Rhakotis to make the point.

  Harn stopped in front of the two men suspended with their arms dangling and held up the bunch of juicy grapes he was feasting on, sucking one into his mouth. ‘My friends, in case you are wondering, you are in the caldarium, where the baths get hot, and it is about to get hotter for you two than you can bear.’

  Rhakotis looked down with a throbbing head at the bath beneath them. It was black tiled and steam was simmering off the clear water. Rhakotis did not let himself contemplate how good the sensation would be of entering it. He looked to Harn. ‘You fought as well as I have encountered. And I have spent my whole life at war.’

  ‘A soldier’s life is measured in how long it takes him to find his better. For that reason, congratulations are in order. You are not young.’ Harn spat out a pip. ‘Nonetheless, you could never be a match for one belonging to the Brotherhood of Pink Gold.’

  Rhakotis didn’t betray a reaction despite a sharp flutter in his chest. ‘I have heard of your kind,’ he muttered. ‘I wouldn’t have expected to find one in such a provincial location as this.’

  ‘Truly you have been unfortunate, for the only reason I stopped in this village was to recover from a fever I picked up on my journey home from Penycher. I booked a room in the village guesthouse and with a jug of sweetened wine I settled in for a period of recovery. And a funny thing happened. The following morning I arose to find the entire population dying in the most pitiful of manner. Blood flowing from every orifice, pustules rampant throughout the skin, hair falling out in clumps, lungs drowning in fluid. I, on the other hand, remained with just a sniffle.’ He tossed away the grapes. ‘It’s sad but true that when I sneeze, people die. A thriving village has been decimated by it.’

  ‘We’re sorry we couldn’t give you more than a sniffle,’ snapped Squillus.

  Harn snickered. ‘You should be concerned about what I can give you. Although my nose is clear and I am confident I have recovered, I need to know for sure before I leave this village.’ There was a flagon of wine on the ground by the wall which he took and drained in expansive gulps. He eyed the two Immunes as he wiped his mouth. ‘I am intending to return to my village a conquering hero. There will be a victory parade in which I am wearing the pink gold in a crown upon my head. And my wife and children will be waiting at the end to embrace me. So, it would not do to make that another parade of corpses. I need to be in control of who I kill. It must be from the blade of my sword, not the fluids of my body. And so I will test myself on you. My mucus, my urine, my faeces, my perspiration. I won’t punish you by requiring you to test them all one by one. That would be cruel and inhumane, wouldn’t it? So, I will mix together a concoction and give them to you all at once.’ He bellowed a laugh. ‘The taste will not be pleasant. And if it brings you the same death these villagers suffered, that will also not be pleasant. But I have a wife and children to kiss, so my shit and piss is the feast you will have to have.’ He patted Rhakotis on the thigh as he departed. ‘Now the Romans will know what it’s like to be enslaved. It tastes poorly indeed. I will return soon.’

  Perhaps it was due to the outrage and revulsion, but Rhakotis could swivel now on his rope without stabbing shots of pain, and he took advantage of it to watch Harn leave the atrium. ‘If only I could reach the rope with my teeth I would gnaw through it like a starved rat.’

  ‘Unfortunately,’ murmured Squillus, ‘I may have an advantage over you regarding the flavours he is threatening, for my own wife’s cooking isn’t dissimilar.’

  ‘Nor the legions’ offerings, I suppose,’ chuckled Rhakotis. ‘My wife, however, has treated me very well and with no current avenue of escape I think I will close my eyes and think of her awhile.’

  ‘As you wish. I will think of my wife too. And when I’m tired of that, I’ll think of war.’

  Their eyes were not closed long before there was a heavy stride into the atrium. ‘Friends, I come bearing gifts: a knife and the blood on my hands.’ It was Cimber. He was holding up his hands to display a knife dripping with blood. ‘It is fitting that the knife with which I slashed the monster’s throat will now be used to cut you free.’

  The rope cut easily and the two captives landed on their knees in the bath.

&n
bsp; Cimber cleaned his hands and the knife in the bathwater. ‘You must be feeling thirsty after your ordeal, but I would encourage caution with any jugs of wine you might see within the bathhouse. Mulchis has been busy with his many poisons.’

  Rubbing circulation back into his arms Rhakotis replied, ‘You had better explain yourselves. How is it you became our saviours when I gave strict orders for you to remain where you were?’

  ‘We suspected you would be too caught up in chasing a fight to remember that Mulchis needed a horse, so we decided to go searching for one on our own initiative. Perhaps it was a pretext for seeing the calamity of the village for ourselves, but any anger you display will be less than convincing now that we have saved your life.’ He unwrapped a patch of torn cloth he had tucked away in a shirt pocket, revealing a mat of dried roots carefully pressed lengthwise. ‘Chew on these. They have a marvellously relaxing property.’

  ‘Don’t tell me they are from Mulchis,’ said Squillus, reaching over to take some and he enthusiastically chewed. ‘And don’t tell me they are the poison in the wine.’

  ‘He left his house with only what he had on him, what he had climbed out of bed with, but that has revealed itself to include a fiendish array of poisons and some worthwhile remedies.’ He held the roots out further to Rhakotis, who shook his head and queried, ‘Did Harn partake in the poisoned wine?’

  ‘From what we could see he was guzzling from his cup like a leech upon flesh. And he feasted on the grapes that had been sprinkled with a fine poisonous powder.’

  ‘Despite that he required his throat slit?’

  Cimber shrugged. ‘The poisons seemed to have a slowing effect, which enabled me to sneak up on him. It wasn’t the most dignified moment when I took him. He was trying to defecate into a small jar. He must have been delirious I suppose.’ Cimber held out the roots. ‘Are you sure you won’t partake?’

  Rhakotis ignored the offer. ‘Did you find a horse?’

  ‘We found more than that. Miraculously, there was a young woman hiding in the stables. She’s the only survivor. It was she that told us about the village’s lethal guest and where to find him. So, it seems you owe her a debt.’

  ‘Where is she now?’

  ‘Out on the palaestra with Mulchis and Kaen. Her name is Dafius. She is quite something.’

  ‘Survivors usually are.’ Rhakotis tapped his friend on the arm and walked that way. He felt light as though he were floating, the way it always felt when death had been narrowly avoided - and it seemed in his long career of service he had floated from one corner of the crumbling empire to the next. Stepping into the palaestra, the girl caught his attention from the outset. She was leaning against a pylon, gazing idly up at the sky. She was tall and her eyes were like two darkly polished pebbles at the bottom of a still stream.

  ‘Dafius? My name is Rhakotis.’

  ‘Yes, I know.’

  ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you bear a certain resemblance to a friend of mine. A man named Fabius Atrius.’

  The girl straightened. ‘He was my father.’

  Rhakotis swallowed down the pain of the question he had to ask. ‘Did he succumb to the plague?’

  Dafius nodded. ‘They all did, but he went last. I was by his side.’

  Rhakotis clenched his fist at the thought of it and eventually let it go as he reminded himself that it was a soldier’s lot to feel pain such as this. ‘I had just found a battle worthy of his attention,’ he murmured. ‘But if he wasn’t going to die by our side, let it be with his daughter. Is he somewhere we can bury him?’

  ‘The monster roamed the village, taking away the bodies to assemble his path of death. Then he waited for passing travellers so that he could add to it. That is where he would have laid you too. And if he had been left to continue, the road would have reached all the way to the ocean.’ She shook her head adamantly. ‘My father is just one step in that path. I would have the whole village burned as their funeral pyre.’

  ‘We’ll make a fire worthy of them and then be on our way. We cannot deviate far from our purpose, but if you have family elsewhere we will see that you are escorted safely to them.’

  Dafius shook her head. ‘My father’s comrades are the closest thing to a family I have left.’

  ‘You cannot come with us. We are going to the very source of what made Harn such a killer. The danger is extreme.’

  Dafius glanced at him. ‘In his last breath, my father told me not to feel guilty that I was surviving when everyone else was perishing. He said that death was the devil’s child and would always keep at least one person behind as a play friend. Well, now my family is gone I’ve got more time to play than before.’

  Rhakotis smiled. ‘I hear your father’s voice in your words so I’ll assume I have his permission. Do you have a horse you want to take? Hiding away in the stables you must know them all.’

  ‘I’ll take my father’s horse and a good one for Mulchis, and I’ll set the rest free.’ She pointed to one of the surrounding hills as she started to walk away. ‘We will watch the fire from up there.’

  ‘We’ll make a fire she can see,’ murmured Rhakotis to his band. ‘I would have the flames of Fabius Atrius a blazing sunset upon the horizon we share with the afterlife.’

  Chapter 15

  The Final Sacrifice

  The Queen’s Sacrifice was looking down at a stinking clump of half-digested flesh and vegetation. Bugs were flying euphorically above it while maggots wriggled and burrowed throughout. The Sacrifice could not recall a fouler stench.

  ‘This is what I must throw?’ he muttered to himself. ‘Is this really what the world has come to?’ He glanced through the thicket of trees to the sleeping dreadwolf and scooped up the faeces with revulsion. The muck held together with surprising firmness; even the insects did not seem particularly bothered by the disturbance.

  Trembling with a trepidation he had never before felt, the Sacrifice edged closer. Having guided him this far, he knew Patrick was somewhere concealed in the dense cover of forest and would be forced to swear an oath before the Queen as to he whether he had hit his target or not. He shuddered with the thought of missing and having to try again.

  The dreadwolf’s chest was rising and falling in deep, steady breaths, its snout tucked in under its chest. It appeared sound asleep. Its docility gave the Sacrifice the inclination to risk an extra step forward. One throw, one chance. At least the creature’s enormous body was no small target. The Sacrifice simply couldn’t miss. Just as he set himself for the throw, however, a sharp vibration emerged from within the putrid matter in his hands. A tiny head suddenly poked out from the top: a hideous hairless grey foetus-like newborn. It was hissing and screaming at the Sacrifice threateningly. A baby dreadwolf. A cold horrible fear flooded the Sacrifice with the realisation it wasn’t dung he was holding, it was some kind of afterbirth.

  Roused by the infant’s squeals, the resting dreadwolf shot upright, its eyes searing upon the Sacrifice. Its jaws opened and there was a thick ejaculation of saliva as it released a full-blooded roar. The Sacrifice panicked, throwing away the grotesque offspring and running.

  Patrick sprung out from his position behind an entanglement of blueberry bushes, as shocked as the Queen’s Sacrifice that matter so rancid could have been concealing life. The blind fury in the dreadwolf’s reaction left little doubt that it was the mother. It charged at the Sacrifice, who was struggling to run and unsheathe his sword at the same time. With Agrestis poised to strike, Patrick ran to intercept it. The dreadwolf, however, was too fast. It lunged upon the Sacrifice, grotesquely ripping out his throat in one brutally swift bite. Blood spurted high in the air, and Patrick pulled himself back. It was too late to save the Sacrifice now. The body was quivering in the throes of death, and the dreadwolf took another bite. It was not a turn of events Queen Rachel would relish hearing but Patrick had been warned if he did not return to the camp and describe what had happened, he would be declared an outlaw. And if he returned to the Que
en’s Camp bearing wounds, his account would no longer be believed. He might even be accused of murdering the Queen’s Sacrifice to avoid danger. He suspected his best chance of surviving an audience with the Queen was to at least ensure the Queen’s prized horses, Omen and Dusk, were returned safely. A chestnut mare and a coal black stallion of impeccable lineage. They were tethered within a clutter of Silver Birch trees not far away. Patrick backed away from the dreadwolf until he was certain it was preoccupied with its offspring, and he turned and ran to the horses. The sight that confronted him there, however, had his eyes widening with shock. Almost unrecognisable, the horses were in a similar state to the Queen’s Sacrifice, their bodies ripped apart and their gizzards spilled out onto the ground in piles of tangled meat. A shadow leapt out at Patrick and he only just turned in time. It was another dreadwolf, its blood drenched teeth reaching for his throat. Patrick pushed up with Agrestis, knocking the massive creature into a somersault. The dreadwolf came back up at him and Patrick swung hard, slicing into its skull with a power that had snapped many an axe handle - but Agrestis had been forged from the finest steel in Ireland. The dreadwolf thrashed a moment, trying to shake off the axe. Its brain, however, had been severed and death came quickly. Patrick surveyed the bloody scene around him. He retrieved his axe from the dreadwolf and set about hacking off cuts of Omen and Dusk’s rump. He carefully wrapped them and placed them into a saddlebag. He took one final glance at the Queen Sacrifice’s mangled body and headed back towards Penycher.

  *

  Patrick moved quickly through the forest, aware that the scent of the fresh meat in his saddlebag would bring unwanted attention from many a nasty predator - he held his axe at the ready in case he was not moving quite quickly enough. As the afternoon sun sunk beneath the trees, he arrived at the home of the Thomas family, the windowless straw shack tucked away in a corner of the village. Chickens and goats were busily foraging for food within the rock walls enclosing them. From inside the shack there were the squeals of agitated pigs. But no sign of the Thomas family.

 
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