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Penycher Pit

 

 

 

Penycher Pit

 

Stuart Parker

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 by Stuart Parker

 

 

 

 

 

Cover Design: SelfPubBookCovers.com/billwyc

 

 

For Joan & Ray

The Dark Ages

 

Prologue

 

The Saxon lords were toiling with picks and shovels in the deep pit of mud and rock.

There were almost fifty of them. Dressed in deer and rabbit leather and with swords strapped to their backs. Other lords had come and gone, pink gold having been added to their armoury and their titles. They were the chosen ones, the Brotherhood of Pink Gold. Those that remained behind in the pit were an unknown quantity, feared but not revered. They were like seeds burrowing into the mud in a desperate quest to sprout.

The Romans, with their empire languishing, had abandoned Britain a decade earlier. Tribal war amongst the Saxons was rife as kingdoms battled for supremacy. It was for this reason that a wretched pit in a remote corner of Britain had drawn together such an ensemble of Britain’s most hardened warriors. Even a sliver of pink gold placed in the hilt of a sword or worn as a necklace could give the possessor an unbeatable advantage in battle. The strength of bears and the speed of lightning. The precious metal’s soft pink colour belied its lethal capabilities. Something to gain at any cost. Many had already died in the attempt.

The Wizard Merdel felt the tragedy of it keenly. He had been the first to find the pink gold, back when there had been a forest where the pit now lay. Merdel had filled a large wooden chest with the pink gold and withdrawn to the abandoned Roman stone tower on the edge of Penycher Village. He spent long days sitting on his throne at the top of the tower, looking over the pit, well aware the stocks of pink gold were fast running out. The screams of jubilation as pieces of pink gold were uncovered was becoming less and less common and the pieces themselves much smaller than they once had been. Merdel knew the lords were turning their attention to him with envious eyes. His only defence from attack was a wide moat around the tower and the serpents that plied its deep waters. Every day, he sprinkled pink gold dust into the moat to keep the serpents evolving into evermore powerful creatures. The pink gold was having a similar affect upon him too, his grey beard returning to its original brown and his worn out, frail body becoming strong again. And his head had become full of ideas. From morning until night his thoughts kept turning over. So many mysteries had become clear to him: how the Pharaohs had built their pyramids, how a catapult could fire further than had ever been done before, how to build a bridge on a scale previously unimaginable – it all just leapt out at him. He made notes on empty scrolls left behind by the Romans and added them to his wooden chest. Day after day he had worked tirelessly until the scrolls had become volumes. He was certain their value was far greater than the pink gold in his possession. But they would be worthless unless he could escape the tower. He had considered simply asking the lords of Penycher Pit: making an offer to surrender his pink gold in return for safe passage. But he had decided against it, for he hoped there were more ideas to come. How to cure diseases, how to grow crops more effectively – knowledge that could improve lives. A better use of the power of pink gold than in the hands of power-hungry warriors.

So, in quieter moments the wizard turned his thoughts to the question of escape. Despite the many far-reaching ideas he had had, this one remained elusive. The one thing he was sure of was that he could not manage it alone. He looked out over the village of Penycher and the vast Matholwich Forest beyond and he pondered.

Chapter 1

The Forest of Death

 

It was raining heavily and a large black spider was crawling along the muddy ground at Nero’s feet.

Nero watched its progress for a time and then slammed his leather-sandled foot upon it. He wiped the remains of the spider off on a clump of damp grass. ‘Death doesn’t leave much of a mark in weather like this,’ he murmured. He ruefully raised his sword to eye-level. ‘Just look at my sword. Sadly, it seems rust is thicker than blood.’

‘I hope the blade is still strong,’ said Cokael, his young female companion. ‘There are enemies in this forest that won’t fit under your boot.’

Nero and Cokael were sheltering from the afternoon downpour under a tall oak tree, deep within Matholwich Forest. Cokael was shivering from the cold and Nero was twitching from the discomfort of standing still.

Nero was not the name that had been bestowed upon him by his long deceased parents, it was the nickname given to him by his comrades in arms, the Immunes. The Immunes were the finest soldiers in all of Rome and a nickname from them meant far more than anything his parents had had to offer. They called him Nero because the battle scars upon his back bore a peculiar resemblance to the notorious emperor. Nero had become convinced it was some kind of blessing from the gods and kept his upper body proudly on display, even in icy cold weather such as this. Not that he paid the elements much heed. His thick leathery skin had endured whole winters exposed and this current weather was to his mind little more than a spring drizzle.

‘Do not fear, Cokael,’ he said to his companion. ‘Although the rust stains may set, the blood of men comes and goes with effortless ease.’ He flicked aside the long straggly brown hair encroaching over his eyes. ‘That is the fickle nature of a soldier.’ He pulled the woman closer and kissed her hard. He found her lips less than accommodating and withdrew unsatisfied. ‘Are you of ill health?’ he queried.

‘I think so,’ Cokael replied. ‘Can you tell?’

‘Your kiss has made me cold.’

Cokael frowned. She was a fraction taller than him and a decade younger. She had pale skin and wispy brown hair. She took Nero’s arm and said adamantly, ‘I’m alright. I just feel lost.’

‘Then I’ll kiss you again.’ Nero squeezed her even tighter and kissed her fiercely, the strength of his body pinning her against the tree. Cokael tried to return the kiss, to let him know she did not regret being here. Her parents and her husband had provided her with warmth and a sturdy roof, but there was something irresistible about this man, and although he had come to her looking for shelter, she had ended up running away with him into the forest. And here they were. Nero turned away sharply and looked over his shoulder at a fixed point that was nowhere in particular. ‘That was better but we need to keep our eyes on our backs. For any creature in this forest, we best assume it bites.’

‘So, how lost are we?’ she queried.

‘We know our destination, and that’s all that really matters.’

Cokael stepped away from the tree. She cupped her hands and idly watched as rainwater ran in heavy streams between her fingers. ‘Perhaps it was not wise of us to run off from the others to bathe and make love.’

‘Unwise? It didn’t feel unwise at the time.’

‘No, it didn’t.’

Nero took from his shoulder bag a blue and white spotted mushroom. He offered it to her. ‘Take a bite of this and you’ll feel better.’

‘I don’t like mushrooms.’

‘This one is different. Mulchis brought one back from Pollio’s garden and managed to farm it. He says they’re called the Dragon Tear.’

Cokael gripped his wrist and took a large, hungry mouthful. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m acting like a wild animal.’

‘That’s what it takes to survive in these parts.’ Nero tucked the remaining mushroom away in his shoulder bag.

‘You’re not having some?’

‘I already had a whole one this morning, and my rusted sword has been sharp ever since. You can finish yours off for tomorrow’s breakfast.’

As the mushroom quickly took effect with its life restoring properties, Cokael stepped to him, ready for that kiss now, but Nero abruptly pushed her away. ‘Wait a moment. There are vibrations at my feet.’ He knelt down and touched the ground with the back of his hand and peered along the muddy forest road. ‘A horse and carriage are coming this way,’ he said. ‘They will be here soon.’ He straightened up and his mood hardened. ‘I will speak with the driver. Wait here.’ He stepped out into the middle of the road and assumed a battle stance. The thick mist and rain were conspiring to cut visibility to almost nothing. There came the pounding of hooves and churning of wheels and the carriage emerged at last. The horse out front was the same drab grey as the mist and was clearly exhausted, its head tilted sideways as though trying to level out a rising track. Nero regretted that rather than having reigns to stop it, he only had his sword. He sidestepped at the horse’s arrival and sliced its head clean off. The horse collapsed under the carriage, sheering the front wheels off its axles and flipping the carriage upside down. The carriage skidded off the road with the screams of the driver underneath.

Nero looked back to Cokael. ‘Are you alright?’

Cokael was gaping. ‘You cut off the horse’s head.’

‘Yeah, I did.’

‘My fortuneteller said I would marry a man whose cut was sharper than his sword.’

‘Very good.’

‘But she added that I would be forever cursed for it.’

Nero frowned. ‘What kind of fortuneteller would want to scare a sweet girl like you?’ He noticed the driver crawling out of the upturned carriage and abruptly strode that way. The driver was covered in mud and was bleeding from a gash on his forehead.

‘Are you alright?’ murmured Nero. ‘Let me help.’ He put his sword to the man’s throat. ‘How about this for assistance?’

The man gazed down at the blade and shuddered. ‘Please, don’t.’ His blackened teeth, blotchy skin and putrid clothes attested to him being nothing more than a pitiful peasant.

Nero lowered the blade. ‘Relax. You are in one piece. And, for the time being at least, the only blood on my sword is that of your horse.’

‘It might as well be mine,’ the man said ruefully, climbing up onto his knees.

‘Why do you say that, friend?’

‘I would prefer you call me Ollis. It is my name and is a fact. The term friend is an opinion and liable to turn into a falsehood.’

Nero chuckled. ‘It’s true your life wouldn’t be any more secure if I called you friend. Ollis it is then.’

The man turned exasperated to his upturned carriage. ‘I have obtained fruits with precious medicinal properties for my sick daughter, Aylene. I was rushing them to her. They may be her last chance of life.’

Nero’s interest was piqued. ‘Obtained them from where?’

‘They were given to me by a gardener. He too put a sword to my throat.’

‘Sounds to me like Pollio.’

Ollis nodded. ‘You know him?’

‘Pollio Gardens is our destination. We have two companions who are further along the road than us. We became split up, you see. I stopped you to ask if you have seen them. Mulchis and Valitino are their names. They are nice people same as me.’

‘I have seen no one.’

‘At the speed you were travelling, you could easily have run them down and not been any the wiser.’

‘Speed for the sake of my daughter,’ Ollis insisted. ‘And besides, this forest is an evil place. There is no going slowly if you want to live.’

‘Well, I’m sorry to say you will be walking now – that’s if you get to keep your head intact on top of your body. You’re certain you didn’t see anyone on the roads?’

‘I have not seen a sole since departing Pollio Gardens.’

‘Then let me ask you another thing. And remember you are trying to save your life by being useful. Is this the way to the Pollio Gardens?’

‘Yes.’ The manner in which Ollis winced, however, suggested it was a loaded answer.

Nero frowned. ‘What is it?’

Ollis opened his mouth only for his words to get stuck in his throat. He collapsed back to the ground and a bloody foam formed on his lips.

Cokael gasped and Nero hurriedly turned to show his hands were empty. ‘I didn’t cut his throat, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ He knelt down beside Ollis. The man’s eyes were still open and his mouth was still trying to form words. Nero put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What is it, Ollis? Are you poisoned? Have you been bitten?’ He put a hand to Ollis’s forehead. ‘You’re icy cold.’

‘Pollio Gardens was so difficult to find,’ Ollis finally managed to whisper, ‘so well hidden, and when I finally found it, I was hungry.’ He gasped for air. ‘Some plums caught my eye. They were a bright purple and looked so succulent. I couldn’t resist. They were so deliciously bitter sweet.’ He coughed and wretched. ‘I couldn’t stop eating.’

‘Has a pip got stuck in your throat?’

‘Pollio came upon me and snatched the plums from me. He told me that they were lethal. He saw that there were two pips in my hand and said that if that was all I had eaten, there was a chance I could make it home before the sickness took hold. But he didn’t know that in my pocket there were many more pips. I had been intending to take them home to plant. Instead it will be my lifeless body that will be planted now.’

Nero took a step back, and watched the final death throes of the poisoned man. It didn’t take long.

Cokael slid up beside Nero, her eyes gaping. ‘Is he dead?’

‘Very dead. This is why Mulchis warned us about eating the fruits in Pollio’s Garden. Pollio has bred the most delectable looking plants to be the most poisonous. It is his way of defending his garden should the beasts lurking the depths of the forest trespass upon it. Apples a little too polished, grapes a little too sweet. Irresistible and deadly. Who knows what deathly treats are awaiting in his little bag? I’ll stick to my mushrooms.’

‘While I am with you, I will choose the mushrooms too. If I were left with the husband my parents chose for me, I would taste the plums.’

Nero pointed to the upturned carriage. ‘Tonight we will have a roof over our heads. Or, at least, a floor. While you prepare a fire, I will bury our friend and his horse.’

‘It is good of you to offer a burial for this man, but is the same necessary for the horse?’

‘Their scents might attract the beasts during the night. I won’t be long. Turns of a shovel come easy in these parts. It is a forest very welcoming of its dead.’

‘Charming. But such conditions make it hard to light a fire.’

‘Look through the carriage for burnables. But if you find Ollis’s bag of fruit, I would recommend you leave it alone.’ Nero walked around the carriage in search of a shovel or other implement that might be of use in the digging of graves.

Chapter 2

The Hunters

 

The rabbit was sitting nervously in the long wet grass.

It lifted its head just high enough for its pricked ears to penetrate into space. Hunger and the allure of the morning sunshine had coaxed it out of its burrow and it held its position for a moment longer, its senses dissecting the forest’s normal activity for the slightest whisper of danger. It, however, stood no chance against the razor-sharp arrow. The arrowhead pierced its brain and it was dead.

It was a fine shot and Nero realised he had to take extra care in his approach. He crept into a thicket of trees on the other side of the grass clearing and crouched down low. He had heard voices but not yet seen anyone. He would have his curiosity sated. As he waited, he nibbled at the last of the mushroom he had started on earlier that day under the upturned carriage with Cokael. He needed the edge it would give him, for he suspected whoever had shot that arrow was more than just a local farmer.

With the rustling of vegetation, there emerged an unsuspecting hunter, just as ripe for an ambush as had been his prey. Nero, however, was surprised to see it was merely a young boy of about ten years of age. The boy had fuzzy black hair, was quite short and a walked casually into the clearing on his way to collecting his prize. Nero had not been able to kill a rabbit like that till he was much older, back in the days when he was still just known as Ontarius. He sheathed his sword and strolled out into the open with a beaming smile. ‘Hello, little man. I was just passing by when I saw your shot. Skilful. Actually, I was eyeing the same rabbit for my breakfast. But you have won it beyond dispute.’ He scratched his chest thoughtfully. ‘What is your name?’

‘Maynard.’

‘A good Saxon name. So, it was you that made the shot?’

Maynard picked up the rabbit by the arrow-shaft and gave Nero a look of haughty disdain beyond his years. ‘Do you see me carrying a bow? It was my father who made the shot. Lord Landard.’

Nero stopped abruptly and glanced about the trees. ‘A lord no less? Well, those chubby cheeks of yours tell me that shot was no fluke. You look very well fed.’

‘Who are you?’ came a hard voice, sending Nero’s heart jumping. A tall man emerged from the forest directly behind the young boy. He was dressed in well-made fur and leathers and his looks and swagger very much resembled the boy’s. Nero disliked him immediately. An arrogant Saxon. But a tad incautious, for although he was indeed armed with a bow, he was coming too close to use it effectively. Nero drew his sword. ‘You need only think of me as the Immunes, the sworn enemy of the Saxon ruling class.’

Landard glowered. He handed off his bow to his son and drew his sword in turn. ‘Leave the rabbit and step aside, Maynard. We have come across a man who deserves to die.’

‘Yes, father.’ Maynard’s eyes were wide and full of excitement.

Landard took a fighting stance before Nero. ‘The Immunes were swept from these shores along with every other relic of the miserable Roman legions. All that remains is a band of Roman bastard outlaws, fast dwindling in number, and there will be one less before my rabbit stew is served.’

The two men came at each other with their light steps belying the weight of the weaponry in their hands. When the blades came together, however, there was no mistaking the immense power of the impact, and Maynard shuffled back some more. As the dual progressed, a growing unease emerged in the pit of the Maynard’s stomach, for he had never seen his father tested in this manner, not even when sparring with the best of the lords at Penycher. Landard’s combinations that usually sent opponents tumbling disarmed and beaten onto their backs were now being effortlessly withstood by a seemingly impenetrable defence. And what made it even worse was the carefree smile on the opponent’s face. Nero was absorbed in his enjoyment of the swordplay, very much like they were two friends sparring with training swords. He was fighting without urgency, without malice. But then all of a sudden something turned within him and a bloodthirsty rage erupted and manifested itself in a maniacal attack. Surprise and apprehension crept onto Landard’s face as his sword began to wilt under the onslaught.

‘Come on, father!’ cried his son, horrified that someone could possess such an unfettered fury and power.

‘Son,’ cried out Landard in desperation, ‘shoot him with an arrow.’

Nero watched through the corner of his eye the young boy run to the arrow lodged within the rabbit. He promptly kicked Landard’s legs from under him, putting him flat on his back, and shook his head admonishingly, ‘Do you still think I am nothing more than wild game?’ He locked up their blades and stomped down on Landard’s cross-guard, driving the hilt’s point deep into Landard’s heart. With a scream of agony, the fight was over. Nero left the dying Saxon for the direction of Maynard, who was frantically trying to pry the arrow away from the rabbit.

‘Let us negotiate the terms of your surrender,’ Nero said. ‘I’ll take the rabbit and the arrow in it and in return you can keep your life. In other words, your life means no more to me than a dead little furry thing. But that is only if it comes with the arrow. If you pull it out, there is no deal.’

The boy stopped tugging at the arrow and glanced at his dead father.

‘You will not be able to get any guidance from him,’ said Nero. ‘You must be your own man now.’

‘Why would you spare me?’ queried Maynard, his voice trembling and tears starting to streak down his cheeks.

‘You have just witnessed noble combat in which the Immunes has prevailed. Word of it should be spread. If I attempt that, I will be dismissed as boastful. But sons of the vanquished will certainly be believed.’

Maynard angrily threw the rabbit at Nero, who amusedly caught it on the tip of his sword.

‘Thank you,’ Nero said. ‘The makings of a fine meal. Now bid your father farewell and be on your way. Dwell here too long and the scavengers that come to feast upon him will have you too.’ He marched away, leaving the boy to face the emperor of scars upon his back.

 

*

 

The wolf was suffering terribly, for its teeth had grown too large for its mouth. The fearsome set of glistening white fangs were on constant display as its mouth, stretched to the point of splitting, failed to enclose them; the longest two teeth at the front were chipped and filthy from constantly dragging along the ground. The wolf’s exposed ribs attested to the impracticality of such large teeth and the terrible hunger that resulted. They were teeth that scared other creatures into retreat, but that were too cumbersome to ever catch one. The wolf could not feed itself on anything more substantial than grass and berries and only then by lying on its side and squeezing them through the corner of its mouth. Being so weak and thin, the wolf could not resist the promise of warmth offered by the campfire that Cokael had been stoking beside Ollis’s wrecked carriage. Especially having endured yet another wet, icy cold night, it had grown so sensitive to the presence of warmth that it could detect its scent like it were prey.

The wolf left the cover of the forest for the muddy road and edged closer, its front teeth dragging laboriously along the ground. The fire was burning brightly with the last of the fuel having been hurriedly added onto it. Cokael had taken that action upon seeing the hideous looking creature edging her way, but to her horror, she realised the heightened flames were not discouraging its approach. She steeled herself to fight for her life with her hopelessly undersized dagger. The wolf was continuing its relentless advance, and Cokael was certain at any moment it would burst into a charge and leap upon her. She wriggled further under the carriage, hoping the confined space would limit the strength and reach of its jaws.

‘Don’t fear, my darling,’ cried Nero, bounding out of the forest. His eyes were fixed on the wolf and his sword raised high. The wolf heard his approach, but was too weighted down by its teeth to react, and was too slow to see the slashing sword in its final instant of life. While its body crumpled, its head remained upright, propped up by its teeth in a gruesome display.

Cokael ran to Nero and leapt into his arms. ‘That was awful,’ she gasped. ‘I’ve never seen a more grotesque creature.’

Nero held her and tenderly stroked her hair. ‘Yes, it was an ugly beast. Shall we eat it?’

Cokael backed away. ‘Are you crazy?’

‘Eating your enemies is the best of feasts. I was taught that by a tribal chief in darkest Germania.’

‘Germania? Did he try to eat you?’

‘Hardly. I spent a month there training his men. Apparently I would wake up screaming most nights. The chief stood by my bed one night and realised I was haunted by the men I had killed. So, he promptly shook me awake and insisted that in future I eat those that I kill. He explained that what a stomach can comfortably digest will never remerge as a bad dream. He even gave me recipes.’

Cokael winced. ‘If I taste even a single bite of that monster, there will be no more point going to Pollio’s Garden as my stomach will be ruined beyond repair.’

‘Never mind.’ Nero kicked the head away, dismissively. ‘I’ve also brought a rabbit for breakfast.’

‘Is that really all you caught?’ Cokael murmured, looking him over. ‘There is a lot more blood on you than what courses through the veins of a rabbit.’

‘Actually, our rabbit is a rare delicacy. It is the last meal of a Saxon lord and it is we who shall eat it.’ He tenderly took her hand. ‘It is a gift from the gods of war. It is their blessing of our union.’

Cokael kissed his lips. ‘But is the goddess of love smiling upon us too? After we made love in the stream, that terrible storm raged. It is an ill omen.’

Nero shrugged dourly.

‘And there is more to be concerned about than just that.’ Cokael hurried over to the carriage and pulled out a brown leather bag. ‘Did you realise while we were making love in the carriage last night, this was our pillow? It is the bag of fruit Ollis was taking to his sick daughter.’

What’s wrong with that?’ murmured Nero. ‘It was soft.’

‘Our marital bed was made upon poisoned fruit? What kind of child would be conceived from such a moment?’

Nero mulled over the thought. ‘When it comes to death and destruction, the gods of war are easily appeased. Winning the favours of the goddess of fertility is less clear to me.’

‘The difference should be obvious: instead of hate there must be love.’

Nero wiped his bloody hands on his shirt. ‘Real soldiers are too busy killing to hate. But I understand that all gods must be appeased in their fashion.’

‘So, what should we do?’ queried Cokael. ‘Deliver the fruit to the sick daughter?’

Nero shook his head. ‘That will not be enough. We cannot expect her to fare any better than her father in finding her cure amidst Pollio’s malevolence.’

‘What can we do then?’

‘We must take her under our care. Purge the illness from her body with care and ritual.’

‘I thought you were in a hurry to catch up to Mulchis and Valitino.’

‘Mulchis and Valitino are not the goddess of fertility.’

‘What if the family does not want you to take their daughter?’

‘I will have no idea what the family wants or doesn’t want, for I have no intention of asking.’ Nero motioned with his head. ‘Hear the running water in the distance? That is the stream where we bathed. Prepare a camp and a bed of soft leaves. I will fetch the girl.’

‘Ollis did not tell you the location of his home.’

‘The road leads to Penycher. That is direction enough.’ Nero put a hand on Cokael’s shoulder and peered tenderly into her eyes. ‘Why are you looking at me like you’ll never see me again? You’re with the Immunes now. You need to get accustomed to surviving.’

Cokael ignored the blood on his chest and hugged him tightly. ‘Surviving even you?’

Chapter 3

The Smoke and Fire

 

Lord Martory leaned over the campfire and inhaled a lungful of smoke.

He cringed with the acrid taste, but held the smoke in, revelling in its attack upon his senses. Tears rolled down his cheeks as though to douse the flames within. When he finally exhaled again, there was no trace of the smoke – it had been consumed.

Lord Martory was lithe and taller than he appeared by the fire, his sharp knees having sunk into the damp ground. His grey blue eyes simmered with strength and intelligence and his hair was the blackness of coal. He had organised before him saplings and branches for the burning. There were budding flowers of oranges, whites and blues and small berries of varying shades of reds. Martory took a bunch of berry laden branches, sniffed them in a brief but studious fashion and tossed them into the fire. The berries sweated out their moisture with the scent of pungent burned wine. Martory sucked it in.

Beside him was the extraordinarily deep and wide hole in the ground that was Penycher Pit. It seemed a mockery that this was considered sacred ground fit only for kings and queens and their lords. Could there still be the precious pink gold hidden beneath the oceans of foul mud? There had not been a discovery for days and even then it had only been a morsel, and yet still the Saxon lords dug – they would dig the world inside out in their quest for the precious metal from which power would come.

After a time, the smoke became cleaner and the flavour of berries sweetened. It was luxurious. Martory would next time have the whole tree brought to him, no matter how deep within Matholwich Forest it had to be fetched from. He suddenly sensed someone approaching from behind and in a flash had his side-dagger out.

Lord Clarant was the man approaching him and held out his hands benignly. ‘It is only I, Martory.’ Clarant was round shouldered and had wavy blonde hair, a thin jawline and prominent ears. He moved uneasily, his nerves and body having been run ragged by the endless days of toil in Penycher Pit. ‘I have come to tell you there is trouble in the camp.’

‘I can see that. You always nibble on your bottom lip when there is death.’ Martory returned his gaze to the flickering flames. ‘Don’t tell me it is the boy who gathers my bushes for me. Although I wouldn’t expect him to live long going so deeply into the forest, it would pain me all the same.’

‘Young Thomas is alive and occupied serving our breakfast.’

‘Then who?’

‘One of us, I’m afraid.’

There were no more dreams to be had in the fire. Martory glared hard at Clarant. ‘Who?’

‘Landard. And it was not a wild beast that took him. It was a Roman.’

‘Another kind of wild beast. How did it happen?’

‘He was hunting game with his son when he was ambushed by an outlaw who claimed to be an Immunes. Maynard was spared and is now back in camp. He says the outlaw slayed Landard with the mere handle of his sword. That is especially disturbing as he was the best swordsman among us.’

Martory stood up. ‘Obviously this outlaw was a morning person. But tell me, what was Landard doing hunting game out in the forest? We are lords of Glywysing and our deaths are meant for greater things. We have servants to satisfy our basic needs.’

‘I think hunting rabbits made him feel normal again.’

‘This is not the right place at all to try feeling normal. Tell me about the son, Maynard. Does he still have his wits about him?’

‘As lucid as you could expect considering he has just seen his father’s demise.’

‘In my case the great pity was that I only got to see it once. And in the meantime I had to see my mother die a few more times than that.’

‘Well, many an enemy has paid a grave price for your anger. When you cut off a head, they usually blink twice before they realise they’re dead.’

Martory spat disdainfully. ‘If the son’s account is accurate we will have some work to do before the diggings begin for the day. A wild beast can be considered a natural cause of death in these parts, but a Roman never.’

He led the way into the lords’ camp where, in a courtyard surrounded by rows of tents, steaming pots of turnip-wreaking stew were being served on long overcrowded tables. There was not, however, the usual laughter or banter, for word of Landard’s fate had gotten around to all.

Young Thomas, the red-headed fourteen year old camp servant, rushed to greet the new arrivals. ‘Lord Martory, Lord Clarant, shall I fetch you some soup?’

‘That will not be necessary,’ said Martory.

‘Martory,’ called out Barrini from amongst their number, ‘have you heard the news? Landard went out looking for rabbit to add body to our soup. Now all we can do is honour him as we partake.’

‘Yes, there is a limit to what you can do at a table,’ replied Martory, ‘and that is why soldiers do not fight with spoons.’

‘An outlaw in a forest as dense and dark as Matholwich could be impossible to find,’ said the squeaky-voiced Tambet from the far end of the table. ‘Shouldn’t we just leave him for the wild beasts?’

‘If you are referring to us as the wild beasts then I agree. Maynard will lead us to the scene of his father’s demise and we will hunt down the outlaw from there. If you would rather stay here with your stew, I fear what that would tell Glywysing much about the honour of its lords.’

‘We will go,’ cried Barrini. ‘When we heard there would be no meat to fill out our stew, we decided to replace it with beer instead, all the way to the top.’ He picked up his bowl and drained it with his head tilted fully back. He then slapped the bowl triumphantly upon the table amidst a boisterous cheer from his fellow lords. ‘That is a fighting man’s stew, so let’s fight.’

There were more cheers and bowls were drained. The Saxon lords rose as one from the tables.

Chapter 4

The Death Monk

 

A monk dressed in black robes was pounding at a tree trunk with a long wooden staff.

The large hood over his head concealed his entire face but for the tip of a long chin and equine nose. The monk only had one arm but it was incredibly strong, the noise of the pounding reverberating deep into the forest. Nero crouched behind an oak tree to the side, wondering what the monk was up to, though not daring to come any closer. Finally, however, he decided to summon his courage. He had left Cokael that same day for the journey to Penycher Village and the daughter of Ollis and he was sure a monk would be a reliable source of directions – even one who had oddly taken to pummelling a tree. Anyway, he couldn’t be too choosy about who he talked to in these parts. He could go days without seeing another soul in this cursed forest.

‘Hello, there,’ said Nero as he stepped out from the oak tree. ‘Are you from around here? I’m on my way to save the life of a little girl. The daughter of Ollis. It is an act of kindness and thus something I am sadly enough unused to. But it is not a monk’s blessing I seek. Merely directions.’

The monk stopped his onslaught on the tree trunk and approached Nero. His face, just a dark silhouette within the hood, exuded menace, compelling Nero to rest a hand on the hilt of his sword.

‘If you have taken a vow of silence,’ Nero murmured. ‘I would settle for a finger pointing in the right direction. Or a shake of head if you are uncertain.’

The monk released a terrifying snake-like hissing and peeled back his hood to reveal a pair of murderous yellow eyes. He tossed aside his shaft and held up his hand to a reveal a palm riddled with ruts. An icy chill shuddered through Nero as he realised the ruts were the outline of human teeth that had been worked in under the skin. He doubted he had encountered a more grotesque sight. The monk’s hand moved in a flash, whipping out a knife from beneath his robes and throwing it at Nero. Nero lunged to the side, the blade grazing his chest and inflicting what promised to be another scar for his body.

Nero took sword to hand and shook his head. ‘I would ask you what’s wrong, but you don’t seem to be much of a talker. All I know is on this day, when I was set on impressing the gods with good deeds, I am about to slice open a monk. Anyway, so be it.’ Nero advanced, well aware that a shield would have been particularly useful against a knife thrower as skilful as this. Sure enough, the monk produced another knife and flung it at him. This time it was Nero’s neck that got nicked as he twisted reflexively away. The monk leapt wildly up at him, the shape of the blade attached to his knee just barely discernible beneath his robes. Nero threw himself backwards, off-balance, landing heavily on his back and sensed rather than saw yet another blade coming down on him. He rolled away, eluding the blade by the narrowest of margins and he plunged his sword deep into the monk’s chest. He lifted the blade to ensure it was lodged tight and flung the monk brutally to the ground. Still the monk did not utter a sound. Curled up on his knees he cupped a handful of blood oozing from his wound and squeezed it through his fingers in a defiant fist.

Nero looked him over from a distance, not daring to venture any closer in case there were more daggers hidden away. ‘You may have taken a vow of silence,’ he muttered, ‘but you clearly haven’t taken a vow of peace.’ Still there was no reply. ‘I have never before encountered a dying man with nothing to say. If your god extolls the virtue of silence, he would not think well me. I’ll be back to collect my sword after you’ve finished dying.’

Nero went to the tree, curious to see why the monk had been hammering at it – perhaps there was a beehive or some ripe fruit he had been trying to knock down. Nero, however, almost fainted with the shock of what he actually discovered. Valitino, his friend and fellow outlaw, was bound spread-eagled to the tree, beaten to a bloody pulp. His face was almost unrecognisable, his eyes swollen slabs of meat and his lips bloated purple warms, but Nero had fought alongside him most his life and knew him instinctively. ‘Valitino, it’s me,’ said Nero, hurriedly trying to untie the rope. ‘I’m going to get you out of here.’

‘Nero, is it really you?’ muttered Valitino in a hoarse voice. ‘Where’s that damned hissing monk?’

‘He’s curled over on his knees with my sword between his ribs.’ Nero gritted his teeth as he found the rope knots had been pulled viciously tight. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He stomped back to the slain monk still clinging to the last vestiges of life and crudely yanked the sword from his chest. ‘All I can say is you’ll want to be dead by the time I get back,’ he gnarled and returned to the tree. He cut the ropes and Valitino crumpled to the ground. Nero slapped him hard across the face. ‘Don’t go to sleep, my friend.’

‘My eyes are open,’ muttered Valitino.

Nero stared hard at the grotesquely swollen face. ‘Is that so?’

‘Thank the gods you found me.’

‘It was the monk’s banging on the tree that drew me here. Did he keep missing you?’

‘It was a ritual. He would hit the tree one hundred and one times for every time he hit me. You’re lucky you came after he had been doing it for a while. His arms had gotten tired.’

Nero snarled. ‘What kind of monk is he? Not like the ones back home.’

‘They call themselves Death Monks. I know because he wrote it on my chest with an overgrown fingernail. If there are more of them nearby, I would rather not know about it.’

‘Was Mulchis captured too?’

‘When I left him, he was preparing camp down river from the Pollio Gardens. We didn’t think you were far away, so I went to fetch you. But it turned out the Death Monk was closer.’

‘I apologise. Being with Cokael is the first time I have ever been lost. I’m afraid it might be love.’

‘Not the ideal place for such things.’

‘That’s true enough, but we seem to be managing.’

‘Well, shut up and get me away from here.’

‘I’ll try, but you’re as heavy as you are ugly.’ Nero gave him his sword. ‘Hold onto this.’

Valitino’s hands locked tightly upon it. ‘Hurry. I have a very bad feeling about this forest.’

Nero slung him over his shoulder and headed away from the battered tree, moving as fast as he could under the weight of his friend. ‘Do you know the way? I have been trying to get directions.’

‘Never mind, it is already too late.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I can hear their horses. We are being pursued.’

Nero unceremoniously emptied his shoulder of Valitino and rested his fingertips lightly on the damp earth. The vibrations were immediately apparent. ‘You’re right. There are horses approaching quickly. We won’t be able to outrun them. You had better take cover. I will lead them away from here.’

‘Very well.’

‘I will be back soon. And then we’ll finish our journey to Pollio Gardens. With the appetites we’ll have, we’ll descend upon the fruits like a locust plague.’ Nero flicked the blade of the sword Valitino was still clutching tightly. ‘If you get into trouble, turn your enemy into a blood trail, and I will follow it. That is the Immunes way.’

Valitino nodded. ‘But do not feel bad if the blood turns out to be mine. You cannot save someone’s life, only offer them the opportunity of a better death. You have done that well.’ He smiled through the pain and crawled away into the bushes.

Nero watched him go and realised that what Valitino had said was true when it came to old soldiers who lived from one battle to the next. But with a young girl it was different. There was so much life to give. The sounds of the horses were growing ever louder and Nero started moving in the other direction to Valitino, his thoughts fixed upon the sick little girl he had been begged to save.

 

*

 

‘I’ve seen monks like this near Penycher Pit. I didn’t kill them at the time because killing monks seems unholy. But obviously others do not have such qualms.’ Lord Martory was out front of the well-armed band of Saxon lords, kneeling over the corpse of the Death Monk. He rolled back the hood to see the brutal, ugly face. Even as a corpse he appeared terrifyingly dangerous. ‘Ending his life would have taken some doing,’ he observed.

‘It must be the work of the outlaw that sent Landard to his grave,’ said Clarant at his side.

‘I think you’re right.’ Martory mounted his horse with an effortless spring that belied its considerable height. The horse was an imposing grey mare named Tremor, and although its name was earned from the way the ground would shake underneath it at speed, that was not what was required now. Martory eased it gently forward now. ‘Spread out in a line,’ he directed of the other lords. ‘There has been a fight here, and there is a blood trail leading away into the forest. So, our man is wounded. You are the web. When you feel a tickle, shout out to the spider.’

The Saxon lords fanned out upon their horses, eager to quash this enemy quickly, eager to return to Penycher Pit.

Chapter 5

The Village in the Dirt

 

Valitino could hear the horses coming closer and closer.

He stopped crawling and looked around him and realised as dark and mysterious as this forest was, there was no place to hide. He could see ahead of him footprints heading away along a muddy track in the direction of Penycher. He hoped it was evidence of Nero’s escape. He did not blame him for abandoning him here to his fate. If he had stayed, it would simply have meant another Immunes would have perished in the bleakness of Matholwich Forest. Leaving behind his sword was assistance enough. It meant he could die well. He used it to pick himself up and upon the track sketched the outline of huts and trees, and then a woman and three children on one side and a man on the other. He was just adding a circular border when a Saxon emerged on horseback from the forest with his eyes excitedly latching onto him.

‘I’ve found the Roman!’ the man screamed at the top of his voice. ‘We’ve got him, boys!’

It brought on a rush of galloping horses and the track was quickly inundated with the lords of Penycher Pit. Martory nudged Tremor to the front and gazed inquisitively over Valitino and the sketch at his feet. ‘What is this?’ he murmured.

Valitino stood up straight. ‘This is my village. This is my wife and children and here is my leader, Rhakotis. These are the people to whom I have sworn my life. Step over the perimetre line only if you are prepared to die.’

Martory leaned forward on his saddle, quietly amused. ‘Tell me, where in your insignificant little village is the graveyard? That is where I will put you.’

Valitino lifted up his sword ready to battle. ‘You want to know where the graveyard is? Step this way and I will introduce you to it.’

Clarant pushed up alongside Martory and barked, ‘An angry soul, all beaten up and diseased. Just the type to have butchered a monk. And our friend Landard as well. Indeed, that is probably how you got your beating.’ He took in a heated breath. ‘It pains me to think that such a simpleton as this could have bested Landard. Childishly drawing pictures on the ground. Shall I fetch our own young ones? Blooding them in battle would never be so close to play as this.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ Martory interjected. ‘I believe what we have here truly is one of the Roman Immunes. If so, that childishly drawn circle could spell the death of an unwary soldier.’

‘An Immunes?’ Clarant spat into the circle. ‘That is what I think of any Roman.’

‘Allow me.’ Martory pulled his sword. ‘I have not killed a Roman in a while.’ He swung off the Tremor and stepped into the circle. Valitino rushed him without delay, the blade of his sword all but irresistible as it whispered for Martory’s throat. Martory blocked it comfortably and retaliated with a spearing thrust at his heart. VaIitino sidestepped and knocked the blade away. It was the opening salvo in a contest that filled the air with grunts and clashing steel. Birds scattered, animals scampered to their shelters, and the lords of Penycher Pit enthusiastically dismounted from their horses to be closer.

‘Shall we intervene?’ called out Lord Talbat with a note of concern.

‘Do not!’ cried Martory. ‘If anyone steps over that line, I will end them myself.’ The threat, however, was only in his voice, for the frenetic pace of the combat had tired him to the point that the only person he was still a threat to was a similarly fatigued Valitino. The mesmerising skill initially on display faded to pure dogged determination. Each combatant was taking his turn at a thrust with an increasingly cumbersome sword; the defender, too tired now to dodge it, would grimace with the wrist snapping strain of blocking one more blow.

Then, inexplicably, Martory broke into laughter and tossed away his sword. ‘You have fought well. You have proved those drawings in the dirt have real life. The embrace of the woman soft and gentle. The calls of the children the most heart-warming of sounds. And a village to keep them in. You have done well. When you say goodbye to them as you die in the dirt, I hope they will hear you.’ He took his side-dagger to hand, its shininess a stark contrast to the mud spattered hand gripping it. ‘Experience has taught me that the best way to kill the small people of this world is with a blade that is big. Equally, the best way to kill someone big is with a blade that is small.’ He wafted the dagger in front of Valitino. ‘This will tell you the kind of person I think you are.’ He turned to the lords crowded around the circle. ‘Let him go to the next world with three cheers.’

Clarant led the cheers and the lords responded heartily. On the first cheer, Martory ran into the giant Barrini, saying, ‘Fling me back like you are the catapult and I am the rock.’

Barrini nodded and grabbed Martory’s arm and screamed with exertion as he slung him at Valitino. Valitino took a low, tentative swing that Martory leapt over and with a ferocious backward thrust plunged the dagger into Valitino’s back. Valitino dropped to his knees, the life draining from his stunned face and he collapsed onto his face. The second cheer of the Saxon lords was the last sound he heard.

The third cheer was for Martory. He wrenched the dagger from Valitino’s chest and put an ear to his mouth as though to listen to his dying words. ‘Oh, he speaks!’ he cried mockingly. He held the pose a moment and straightened up and addressed the lords with the animation of a pantomime. ‘It was a dead man’s whisper. He indicated that now he is no longer of any use to his wife, so beautiful as you can see from her picture in the mud, that I am more than welcome to offer myself as a replacement. In fact, I am to consider his little drawings a contract for my new possessions.’

The Saxon lords burst into laughter.

‘And there’s more,’ Martory exclaimed. ‘He made it clear we are not to shift a grain of dirt in the name of burial. He accepts that our efforts with the shovel are reserved purely for the sacred ground of Penycher Pit. So, we will decorate Landard’s grave with his carcass until the hungry beasts of the forest come to feast upon him.’

More cheers erupted. Martory waved them quiet. ‘The most important revelation, however, was that he is not the cowardly killer of Lord Landard, merely an acquaintance. So, if you are not too busy, there is another man still to die this day.’

This time, however, the cheering was more muted, the Saxon lords looking to each other. It was a mixture of Penycher Pit’s allure and the apprehension of venturing any further into Matholwich Forest. Realising their trepidation, Clarant shouted, ‘Having seen the good Martory handle a blade, I’m sure you are questioning your own proficiency, your own ability to stand up to such dangerous Roman outlaws as this.’ He put a foot on Valitino’s body. ‘But tell me, which fantastic, never to be emulated flourish of blade achieved this victory? Can you name it? Well, I tell you there was no flourish. Certainly not the last. Victory was achieved with a hundred determined strokes. And with a loyal friend. We have all come to Penycher with just one purpose, to become invincible; it is because we all want it, that we shall have it.’

The Saxon lords cheered louder than ever and lustfully raised their swords into the air. Martory smiled and patted Clarant on the back. ‘Well done, my friend. That lit a fire under them.’ He raised his own dagger in turn. He felt self-conscious about the smallness of the blade but was gladdened by the blood trickling onto his fingers.

Chapter 6

The Miracle

 

Nero’s hair was whipping furiously about his shoulders as he ran faster than he had in many a long year.

Leaving behind his sword with Valitino had made him lighter on his feet and being pursued weaponless by Saxon lords gave him a rare reminder that there was a heart beating in his chest. He came to a wide, fast flowing river and threw himself in. The icy torrent took hold and tugged and pulled, forcing him to fight for breath. Rocks beneath the surface were inflicting bruising blows and the cold was already causing him to shiver. Nonetheless, sensing that it was an effective escape from a deadly enemy, Nero was relishing every moment.

The rapids carried him along through a series of sharp bends walled in by dense forest before the river widened and its currents eased. Sunlight was breaking through the cloud with a calming, revitalising warmth. There was still enough tug in the river to carry Nero along and, to his surprise, it was pushing him in the direction of an old man at the water’s edge. The man had a bushy grey beard and a particularly round bald head. He was dressed in loose woollen robes that were floating about at his knees as he busily went about scooping up water into a large clay pot on the bank. He was so preoccupied with his purpose that he did not notice Nero’s approach. In fact, Nero had rarely seen someone so fixated on water outside a desert.

‘Are you alright, my friend?’ Nero queried, standing up beside him.

Not in the least bit startled, the old man glared at him with tired, bloodshot eyes. ‘What makes you think I am your friend?’

‘Because you don’t look much like an enemy.’

‘What does your enemy look like?’

‘Large swords, youthful and arrogant. So, almost nothing like you.’

The old man frowned. ‘Do you speak of Saxon lords?’

‘Yes, I do.’

The old man straightened up from his pot as far as his rooked spine would allow. ‘Then perhaps I am your friend, after all. Are they the reason you have come drifting down the river?’

‘I am a Roman Immunes and in their eyes I am an outlaw.’

‘Then you should take the river as far into the forest as you can. And when the forest ends you should keep running.’

‘You have come a long way into the forest yourself,’ said Nero. ‘Too far to be collecting water in a chipped old pot like that.’

‘It is the only pot we have. I have come this far upstream in the hope the water will be pure far away from the village. The gold dust of Penycher Pit is poisoning and polluting everything. Everything including my granddaughter. She has been bedridden for days and her condition is only getting worse. If she is to have any chance, she must get clean water.’

‘Penycher Pit?’

‘You must know it. Why else would you be waging war with Saxon lords?’

Nero smirked hopefully. ‘Funny you should mention that. Tell me, old man, has this little girl’s father ventured even deeper into the forest in the search for cures? A father named Ollis?’

The old man’s eyes widened. ‘You know him?’

‘I have come on his behest. And the gods have guided me here. I have the cure your granddaughter needs. Her name is Aylene, is it not?’

‘Surely the gods have brought you here. Where is your medicine?’

Nero reached into the bag within the pocket of his deerskin pants and removed a Dragon Tear mushroom. ‘Would you like a bite?’

‘A soggy mushroom?’ The old man frowned. ‘We live in the time of magical pink gold and that is the best you can muster?’

‘This is the only magic of which you need to know.’ Nero returned the mushroom to his pocket. ‘It has been my nourishment as I have escaped certain death these past few days. And if that is what your granddaughter is facing now, you had better lead the way to her.’

‘Why isn’t Ollie himself here? Is he out looking for more medicine?’

Nero pulled a face. ‘He is exploring deeper the dark forest.’

Montone took off his robe outer robe and handed it to him. ‘You will need to disguise yourself from the Saxons. While we are walking back to Penycher, you can tell me more of why they are after you, and how you have managed to elude them. I should like to hear that.’ He hauled the pot to his chest. ‘My name is Montone.’

‘I am Nero.’

Montone led the way along a narrow track and murmured after a while, ‘The lords of Penycher Pit do not appear to be coming. You must be quite a soldier to have eluded them.’

‘There is nothing for me to be proud of. I have vowed to die a hundred deaths before I die once. It is a vow that compelled me to kill a monk this day. And abandon a friend.’

‘If you refuse to die before your goal is achieved, that is the greed of a good soldier. And I’m not as shocked of your slaying a monk as you might think. Not in this age of transformation. Many things are not as they once were or should be.’

 

*

 

Montone knew the forest intimately and led Nero along narrow hidden tracks that traversed spectacular groves of Grand Fir trees and steep, densely vegetated hills abuzz with the sounds of insects. Nero and Montone, on the other hand, had fallen into silence. Montone even held his tongue when he noticed the scars on Nero’s back. Nero at least managed to coax the pot out of his hands and their pace hastened significantly. But there was still far to travel, for Montone had journeyed a long way into Matholwich Forest in his quest for purity.

‘We are nearing Penycher,’ he murmured at last. ‘Be on guard.’

Through a semi-wooded rise, a small straw thatched shack was emerging. There were goats and chickens in a pen, but no real evidence that this was a residence that could comfortably sustain itself. A short, young woman with bright ginger hair pushed open the door of reeds and branches to greet them.

‘You brought water?’ she queried anxiously. ‘Aylene’s condition has worsened.’

‘Yes,’ said Montone. ‘And I brought a friend of Ollie’s as well. His name is Nero. He was at the river.’ He turned to Nero. ‘This is Ollie’s wife, Junis.’

The woman looked at Nero circumspectly. ‘My husband went off looking for cures. Is there any advantage in him bringing back friends instead?’

Nero found her flushed cheeks endearing. ‘In this case it might be,’ he said. ‘Allow me a moment with your daughter.’

‘She is inside,’ said Montone.

Nero put a hand onto his shoulder. ‘Let me see her alone.’

‘Why?’ said Junis.

Nero glanced at her a long moment. ‘Have you ever seen a miracle?’ When she shook her head, he said, ‘That’s why.’

He stepped alone into the shack. There was a goat lying in the doorway, threatening to trip him up. The girl was curled up on a straw bed in a far corner. Her hair was blonde and a shade brighter than the straw; her face, with its ghostly pale complexion stood out far more.

‘Who are you?’ she whispered.

‘A family friend,’ replied Nero, ‘who will make you better and then be gone.’

‘If you make me healthy, you can stay as long as you want. I will even marry you.’

Nero chuckled. ‘You would regret that.’ He stepped passed the goat and showed her the Dragon Tear mushroom. ‘Take a bite, if you will.’

Aylene received it in her fingertips. ‘Do you have any water?’ she queried. ‘Grandfather was fetching some.’

‘Your grandfather did better than that. He plucked me from the river. Luckily I was too big for the holes in his pot.’

Aylene inspected the mushroom carefully in the cracks of light penetrating the straw weave. ‘I’m tired of being afraid,’ she said.

Nero knelt down beside her and smirked. ‘Don’t get too tired of it. You have plenty of life left in you.’

As Aylene bit into the mushroom, Nero mulled over whether stealing her away from her family really was going to please the goddesses of fertility. Perhaps, it would be better just to give her a little pick-me-up with the Dragon Tear and be on his way. Montone had lost a son and Junis a husband and having their little girl abducted wasn’t going to do anything for their spirits.

Montone appeared in the doorway and Nero turned with a start, wondering if the notion of stealing Aylene away was somehow evident on his face.

‘Nero, you had better come here,’ Montone murmured grimly. ‘I have some important news.’

‘Very well.’ Nero walked out of the grim dwelling to see Montone on the front path looking so pale and cold and it occurred to him he was still wearing his robes. ‘Oh, excuse me.’ But as he started to pull the robes off, there was movement to the side and before he could react a blade had cut through the wool into his chest.

‘Got him!’ came a jubilant cry.

The blade twisted and dug deeper. Nero fell to his knees, his heart pierced.

‘Yes, I can see it in your eyes. Great soldiers are the most shocked when death finally comes for them.’ It was Lord Martory who crouched before him; he held out a blood smeared hand for Nero to see. ‘Just as I promised Landard’s young son. My sword fits you well, my friend. I think I will keep it there a while longer.’

Nero could feel his life force draining away. He splayed out on the ground and lamented that it was not his ears that were first to shut down.

‘I cannot imagine what you are doing here,’ continued Martory, leaning closer. ‘What is it with the Immunes? Your friend died defending a village drawn in the mud and here you are meeting your maker coming out of a peasant bird’s nest.’ He leaned closer still and whispered into his ear, ‘For a time, I thought my nose was betraying me. You see, that’s how I tracked you. Since I have been in that damnable pit, I have developed a sense of smell that would put a wolf to shame. And now I will bury you so deep that I will never have to smell you again.’

Clarant and the band of Saxon lords arrived at the hut, prompting Martory to step back from Nero, his inexplicable sense of smell not a revelation he cared to share with anyone except the dying.

‘Is this the outlaw?’ queried Clarant.

‘Yes,’ said Martory.

Clarant looked Nero over with revulsion. ‘We must bury him so deeply that even the dead will not be able to see him. Otherwise, poor Landard will suffer an eternal shame at having succumbed to someone as mediocre as this.’

A piercing scream from within the shack’s doorway caught them off guard. It was Aylene. She had left her bed for the first time in weeks and she was standing with an expression of pure horror as she looked down upon Nero. The remaining portion of Nero’s mushroom fell out of her hand.

Nero smiled at her and that was the way his life ended, as wistfully as evaporation.

Chapter 7

The Dreadwolf

 

The blood of Young Thomas was mixing with the morning dew.

He was pulling himself along the forest floor with the last of the branches he had been sent out to collect – the firewood for the lords of Penycher Pit. He had abandoned most of it when the creature struck. It had been his routine to collect firewood every morning through the many months he had been the servant of Penycher Pit. And finally his luck had run out. Gripped with pain, he coughed and a spattering of blood came upon his hand. He wiped it off on the ground, paying it little heed, for he already knew he was dying.

He was fifteen years old and had dull red hair and colourless freckly skin. He was crawling deeper and deeper into Matholwich Forest, his ripped-apart body throbbing painfully with every movement. His hands upon the branches were as white as Roman marble and so weak they could barely maintain their grip. He did not know why the wolves had not already ended his misery. He could hear them panting excitedly behind him, following in a pack. He was helpless against them – an easy meal. Still, he wasn’t afraid. He had seen this moment in his dreams more than once. Vivid premonitions. So, all was as it should be. There was only one thing left to do in this life: to get as far away from the village as his dying breaths would take him, to spare his mother the pain of knowing what had become of him; for she had had the premonitions too. She had described them often, usually with tears welling in her eyes. He would not let her premonitions become a reality.

Suddenly the wolves yelped and scattered. Somebody was pelting them with rocks.

‘Get away!’ a woman screamed, running at them. ‘Leave him alone!’ It was Cokael, and Young Thomas thought her the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, though he had to wonder if he were not in fact delirious. But as Cokael came to him, the worry lines upon her brow and the dark rings of pained sleeplessness around her eyes became visible and assured him that this was reality, after all.

‘They’ve gone for the moment,’ Cokael said, kneeling beside him.

‘Thank you,’ Young Thomas replied and grimaced with the pain of it. ‘But I fear I am too damaged to be saved.’

‘Without meaning to offend, I must say that is not the reason I am here.’

‘Then why?’

Cokael kept her eyes flickering about the heavy mist that hung over the forest, gripping her dagger tightly in case the wolves returned. ‘I saw you working in the pit,’ she said. ‘A slave at the beck and call of every digger’s whim. Fetching food, wine or tools like the pit was a palace. And when you were not fetching things, you were doing the heavy lifting of removing mud and rock into the forest. From sunrise to sunset. So abused, so mistreated, that is why I feel I can trust you.’

Tears welled in Young Thomas’s eyes. ‘I am the servant of Penycher Pit. It is an honour for my family.’ He placed himself up onto his hands and knees and recommenced his crawling.

‘Where are you going?’

‘My mother often wakes up screaming with nightmares about a moment like this. I tell her that it is only a dream. Now all I can do is hide my fate. So, I will go far into the forest.’

‘That is where I have come from,’ said Cokael. ‘Is dying so bad that you need to hide it somewhere so dark?’

‘It is my mother’s fate I am worried about. If she finds out that I have been torn apart and digested by wild beasts, the light will go out of her.’ The pace of his crawling intensified with the thought. ‘If my body is never found, she can dream that I came into a better life. Perhaps, a kindly lord took me back to his kingdom as an apprentice. Or perhaps I found some pink gold myself and went on a quest to carve out a kingdom of my own. She would proudly wait for the day of my return. And all I have to do to give her this final gift is never to be found – not one piece of me.’

‘Getting yourself eaten is your idea of a gift to your mother? The people of Penycher have an interesting way of seeing the world.’ Cokael leaned forward for a closer look at the bite marks that stretched from his shoulders all the way down to his thigh. ‘Nasty. But why didn’t the wolves finish you off?’

‘It wasn’t the wolves that did this. What you see is just one bite from the creature they call the dreadwolf. It picked me up in its teeth and shook me viciously and I would have been consumed right there and then if not for another one charging onto the scene. They set upon each other, giving me the chance to escape.’

‘Where were your masters of Penycher Pit during all of this? You have been screaming out for help and yet I am the only one who has come.’

‘They are important, and I am only a servant. They would not have the time to look for me. Especially as only recently they lost a whole day of work due to the menace of outlaws.’ Young Thomas coughed up some more blood. ‘You better not wait too long to get to the point of what you want.’

Cokael swallowed hard. ‘I am looking for a man named Nero. He would not hesitate to come to the aid of anyone. Even if he were as chewed up as you, he would consider his wounds mere scratches. To be honest, I hoped your screams would draw him this way.’

‘I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out that way.’ Young Thomas kept moving forward only for Cokael to stab the dagger into the ground in front of him.

‘See how easily the blade cuts into this ground?’ she said. ‘Even a frail girl like me could bury you deep.’

Young Thomas gazed at her. ‘Is that a promise?’

‘Yes, just as long as you tell me what you can.’

‘No matter what?’

‘As long as it is the truth.’

‘What did you say is his name?’

‘Nero. And I’m Cokael. For days I have been hiding in the trees, watching over Penycher Pit, waiting for sight of him. I fear the Saxons have captured him. But all I have seen is filthy men shovelling mud in that pit. Are they really lords?’

‘Yes, and in the beginning they did not need to get so filthy to find pink gold. They were plucking it from the surface. But now the pink gold is gone and the lords are growing restless. Their ambitions are shifting to the Wizard Merdel in his tower. They say he is holding enough pink gold to satisfy an entire army.’

‘If he is just one man, why don’t they just take it?’

‘The serpents in the tower’s moat have annihilated those that have tried.’

‘Serpents?’

‘They were eels before the pink gold transformed them. Just as the dreadwolfs had once been like any other wolf.’

‘Nero will want to know about this. He will claim the pink gold for Rome. How did the wizard accumulate such a horde?’

Young Thomas sat up. ‘When the animals began to change, and villagers began to disappear with their grotesque screams filling the woods, the wizard went to investigate. He wandered the forest while everyone else in the village cowered in their homes. He found the pink gold in a crater in the forest. Pink gold was everywhere.’

‘That crater is now Penycher Pit?’

Young Thomas nodded and looked at her grimly. ‘But I cannot defer any longer. Is the man you seek Roman?’

‘Yes. Why?’

‘The outlaws I spoke of were Roman and they perished just days ago at the hands of Lord Martory, the pit’s greatest lord. They were members of the Immunes. One was felled in a tremendous battle in the forest and the other without a fight on the doorstep of a peasant’s shack. I am sure if one of them was your husband, it would not have been the latter.’

A shudder ran through Cokael. ‘I would see for myself? Where are their bodies?’

‘Lord Landard was buried in a simple ceremony and the bodies of the Roman outlaws were left to garner it – preferred to flowers or trinkets. The next morning the grave was still there, as it will be for all eternity, but the outlaws were gone, no doubt claimed by scavengers.’

Cokael plucked the dagger from the ground and stood up. ‘Lord Martory was the instigator of these things?’ she asked icily.

Before Young Thomas could answer, there came the sound of rapid movement from within the mist and the bloodcurdling yelps of a wolf being savagely attacked. ‘The dreadwolf has returned,’ gasped Young Thomas. ‘Run for your life.’

The yelping stopped and there was an eerie silence. For an instant, Cokael was frozen by fear. She could sense that something evil was coming, something to send her to Nero in the afterlife. She snapped out of her paralysis just as the massive silhouette emerged in the mist; she leapt up onto the nearest tree and climbed. The creature crashed into the trunk and sprung up at her, snapping its massive jaws at her legs. Cokael’s fingers slipped on the wet bark but she somehow managed to wedge a foot between two branches and held herself up.

The creature turned on Young Thomas in a blind fury and this time it found a victim in no condition to flee. Teeth tore into flesh to the tune of horrible screams. Cokael climbed higher up the tree until she had found a secure position in the fork of two branches and then forced herself to look down. Young Thomas was being ripped apart and consumed in large chunks. Cokael rested her head against the tree and burst into tears. So, this was the dreadwolf. The Roman outlaws she had followed into Matholwich Forest had laughed at the rumours that such creatures existed. For them the idea of a forest the Saxons were too afraid to enter sounded nothing short of paradise. But now Nero and Valitino were dead, and Mulchis Gaza probably was as well. Cokael could see now that no one could survive in this forest. And her demise would come soon enough too. The thought that it would be as grotesque as what Young Thomas was experiencing had her shivering uncontrollably. All she could do was cling to the tree and wait for her turn to come.

Chapter 8

The Axeman

 

Word of Young Thomas’s disappearance spread quickly throughout Penycher.

For the Saxon lords it meant a cold night with ever diminishing stocks of firewood. For the superstitious villagers it was just further proof that doomsday was drawing ever nearer.

Egren, the village chieftain, walked pensively through the dark night, wondering how many people in the huts around him were actually sleeping. He suspected precious few. He was a plump, balding man with weepy blue eyes, pot-marked skin and a knee that didn’t bend. At fifty years of age there were few in the village that were older. And the way the world was turning, Egren doubted anyone would get to reach fifty ever again. He came to his destination by a campfire on the fringe of the village and it inexplicably amused him that the one person he was paying to stay awake was in fact snoring in an easy sleep. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the man. Patrick the Axeman’s height and strength were apparent even as he lay curled up in the grass with his enormous axe clutched against his chest. He had shaggy dark blonde hair and hard unshaven cheeks and he was dressed in black-dyed fox fur and deer leather. It seemed he hadn’t been sleeping long, for the skewers set above the fire were spitting juicily. Rabbit and boar meat and it smelt delicious. The chieftain reached across to take one and the snoring suddenly stopped and an eye opened.

Egren stepped back self-consciously. ‘Good evening, Patrick. I would have a word with you, if you will.’

Patrick sat up, holding the axe a little less than casually. ‘Is that what you were doing?’

‘It is true I was admiring your skewers,’ Egren mumbled. ‘It has been a long time since I saw meat that was anything more appetising than rat.’

‘Game is still plentiful in the forest, if you care to look.’

‘With my bad leg I doubt I would last long.’

Patrick nodded grimly. ‘I suppose not. It’s an ill-tempered wood sure enough.’

Egren awkwardly sat down by the fire. ‘It’s that ill-temper that’s brought me here. Young Thomas has not come home to his parents tonight. His mother is in hysterics and has sent me to talk with you. On the bequest of our noble lords, he ventured into the forest to gather firewood this morning. You are one of the few that goes that way too and so there is a hope you may know where he is.’

Patrick shook his head grimly. ‘It is true I was out in the forest today. But all I can tell you is it’s no place for children.’ He gestured with the axe. ‘Not unless they are proficient with such a weapon as this. I hope the lords are nice and comfortable in their camp because I fear their warmth has come at high a price.’

‘I do believe they offered you the job before Young Thomas.’

‘I am not a servant to lords, no matter how well they pay. They could have been brave enough to fetch their own firewood.’

Egren sighed sombrely. ‘I’ll tell the Thomas’s you didn’t see anything, but will search in the morning.’ He stared out into the eerie forest beyond the grassy meadow they were upon. ‘If it’s as bad out there as you say, what makes you think you can protect the village from it?’

Patrick chuckled dryly. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

‘I guess not. I pay you to give the villagers piece of mind when I suspect there is none to be had.’

‘So, you are hungry?’ Patrick plucked two of the skewers off the fire. ‘Dinner is served.’

Egren beamed a smile. ‘It’s rabbit, right?’

‘To be honest, I’m not quite sure.’ Patrick reached past his pile of firewood and picked up the discarded head. It was a grotesque creature with dagger-like teeth crammed into its mouth and small, black fearsome eyes.

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 heard 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.’

‘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 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 gold.’

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.’

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 11

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 eyes 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 12

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 his 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.’

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, oblige 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 13

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?’

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.

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 14

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 Queen’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.

‘Hello!’ Patrick called out, stopping at the wall. ‘Is anyone there?’

The door to the farmhouse opened abruptly and an old man wearily emerged. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘Patrick the Axeman. If you’re not too busy, there is a feast beckoning.’ Patrick pulled the horse meat out of the saddlebag. ‘A gift from the Queen as a small gesture of gratitude for Young Thomas’s service in Penycher Pit and an apology for his absence. It will be the best meat you have ever tasted. The Queen’s own food.’

The old man paused a moment as he mulled over Patrick’s presence. ‘The Axeman,’ he muttered. ‘You did well in the Queen’s games. You could’ve handled those two brothers too if they hadn’t ganged up on you.’

‘It was just a bit of fun.’

‘Missing out on the gold ingot can’t have been too much fun.’

‘At least I have Agrestis.’

The old man nodded. ‘Your fighting qualities have earned the respect of the people in the village. And they are glad that it is you guarding them at night.’

‘You sent Egren to have a word about your Young Thomas.’

‘That’s right. He still hasn’t come home. Have you seen any signs of my son in the forest?’

‘No,’ said Patrick. ‘But it is a big forest. Young Thomas may be on his way home yet.’

The old man nodded half-heartedly. ‘Yes, he might be.’

Patrick gestured to the meat of Omen and Dusk. ‘Do you accept the Queen’s offer?’

‘It would be an honour. Tell the Queen we are incredibly grateful and flattered that she would think of us.’

Patrick nodded. ‘I certainly will. But for the moment I will start the fire and cook the meat the way it should be.’

‘With my wife here to help me, I’m sure I can manage.’

‘You won’t if you find yourself with uninvited guests,’ said Patrick gravely. ‘Human or otherwise.’ He swung over the wall. ‘You may be able to keep your chickens in, but there is no wall in this village to keep out the creatures of the forest.’

‘You’re right, Patrick the Axeman. All we have is you.’

*

 

‘The Queen’s Sacrifice has not returned, Your Highness,’ announced a nervous attendant at the threshold of the Queen’s expansive tent.

The Queen glared at him from her wooden throne. ‘And the Witness?’

‘No, Your Highness.’

‘Is there still light left in the day?’

‘Dusk has arrived.’

The Queen waved him away and turned to the two men seated at her table: Lord Marjory and Lord Zwingli, the commander of her army. ‘My Sacrifice was commanded to be back by nightfall. Do you think he might have simply become lost in the forest?’

‘The guide you sent with him is a local,’ replied Martory. ‘I doubt they are lost.’

The Queen sipped her mulled wine and looked across to the mound of heated rocks warming the tent. ‘It would be a shame to lose him. This particular Sacrifice has lasted longer than most. He has placated Fate all over the kingdom. Perhaps it is true, Martory, that the creatures in this forest are a force beyond our arts.’

‘They are truly monsters from another world,’ said Martory, ‘but it is the Brotherhood of Pink Gold you have to worry about. If they turn on you, your army would prove no match.’

‘I sent you to learn about Penycher Pit, to take hold of its secrets. Have you been successful?’

‘Yes, Your Highness. I uncovered a piece of pink gold within the pit. I kept it a secret from the other lords because I wanted to remain amongst them. But I have become different with it pressing against my skin.’

‘How different?’

‘I have become stronger, faster and with a nose so sharp I can sniff out enemies like a wolf.’

‘Do you have the pink gold with you? I would like to experience those things.’

‘That may be unwise, Your Highness,’ interjected Zwingli keenly. ‘This power is too new to fully understand. There is a whisper that it may bring on sickness and death to those who possess it.’

Queen Rachel glared at Martory. ‘Then why is my best lord in possession of it?’

‘Because your protection is more important than my life,’ replied Martory.

‘But even that will not be protection enough,’ said Zwingli, gravely. ‘We require more pink gold to fortify you again your enemies.’

‘And so we have come to the source?’ queried Queen Rachel.

‘Martory tells us Penycher Pit is almost bare,’ said General Zwingli. ‘But there is another source. That is why we have brought our army.’

‘Merdel’s tower?’

‘Yes, Your Highness. There is a great cache of pink gold within its walls.’

‘Are you sure it is great? Has anyone actually laid eyes upon it?’

‘No, Your Highness. At least we now know it is true that there are serpents lurking in the tower moat. That was proven by your man bathing in its water.’

Queen Rachel nodded. ‘It seems he was luckier that day than this.’

‘We will storm the fortress and seize the pink gold. It will be distributed amongst your loyal lords and soldiers and your rule will be secured.’

‘Very well. But I do not want you touching any, General Zwingli. Not if there is any chance of harm to be had from its properties.’ The Queen looked to Martory. ‘I would have said the same to you if it were not already too late.’

‘I understand, Your Highness.’

The Queen looked Martory up and down. ‘Have there been any changes to your body?’

‘Some.’ Martory held out his arms and the sleeves rose halfway up his wrists. ‘It is like I am a boy again, for I am growing out of my clothes. And I am shaving many times a day.’

‘What about your bedroom performance?’

Before the question could be addressed, the Queen’s attendant abruptly re-entered the tent. ‘Your Highness, the Executioner requests an audience.’

The Queen had barely started to nod when the Executioner pushed past the attendant with large strides. ‘Your Highness, there are mutterings amongst the camp concerning the Queen’s Sacrifice.’

‘As far as I am aware he has not returned,’ said the Queen curtly. ‘Will I send you into the forest to find him?’

The Executioner stiffened. ‘If Fate has chosen to accept your offer of a warrior, mounting a rescue would certainly offend it. And if Fate has also taken your Witness, perhaps you were not meant to see what has become of them.’

‘So, what would you suggest I do, Executioner?’

The Executioner bowed deeply. ‘There is only one choice, Your Highness. To declare them dead or outlawed. There can be no acceptable excuse for their failure if by some miracle they return. Execution must be their punishment.’

‘Has nightfall really come so soon?’

‘Yes, Your Highness. It is quite dark.’

Queen Rachel thought a moment. ‘Very well, dead or outlawed. But if either one of them does turn out to still be alive, I do not want you wielding your axe until I have had an audience. I am serious about that.’

‘As Your Highness wishes.’ The Executioner bowed again and departed.

The Queen turned to Martory and Zwingli. ‘That is one man I daren’t allow to possess even a smidgen of pink gold. With his bloodthirsty ways, there would hardly be a head left still attached to its neck.’

Martory nodded. ‘Let’s plan our assault on Merdel’s tower.’

‘Yes, by all means. I am interested to know how you are going to obtain what the wizard has pilfered from Penycher Pit.’

 

*

 

The Wizard Merdel was a dark silhouette leaning forward on the waist-high stone wall at the top of the tower. Dressed in black robes, he was almost impossible to see. But Patrick had known where to look. Every night the wizard would stand at that spot and throw scraps of meat into the moat followed by sprinkles of pink gold. The water would madly froth and bubble as the hungry serpents fed. Usually the moment was brief, but on this occasion the wizard lingered just a little longer. He had tossed extra amounts of meat from his buckets and now he was releasing more of the pink gold, whipping the serpents into a frenzy.

Patrick was on the moat’s edge, working hard to haul up a bucket he had tossed into the middle of the maelstrom. He was using all his strength, the water collected in the bucket heavier than any he had known. He worked as quickly as he could, for the bucket’s handle was stretching alarmingly, threatening to snap at any moment. He gritted his teeth with the exertion, perspiration pouring from his forehead. He got the bucket onto the ground and tossed away the damp rope that had left its mark upon his hands. Patrick’s eyes widened with the sight of the water within the bucket. It was glowing an eerie shade of soft pink. Patrick picked up the bucket and started to drink, downing the specs of pink gold floating upon the surface. It was a bitter sweet taste that immediately had his whole body in a warm tingle. Patrick drunk until he was full and then dunked the head of Agrestis into the bucket. He sloshed it around and when he lifted it out again, the blade was as shiny as the day it had been forged by the master blacksmith, Canalis. Slipping the axe back into its leather sling bag, Patrick returned his attention to Merdel, who was now standing still, seemingly returning his gaze. Patrick’s body was continuing to hum and heat and he wondered if Merdel had been feeding his serpents extra portions of pink gold in readiness for the armies coming to take it away from him.

Now that Young Thomas’s family had feasted on the Queen’s horses and he had feasted on pink gold, Patrick was ready for his audience with the Queen. He walked with large strides, skirting the village and the roaring fires made to ward away the savage creatures of Matholwich Forest. The energy surging through Patrick’s body was exquisite, the best kind of inebriation he had ever felt. The Saxon lords toiling away in the mud of Penycher Pit might not have been so mad after all, for with even a taste of pink gold, Patrick felt capable of anything. As he neared the camp, he forced himself to slow his pace. With the Queen’s Sacrifice and the Queen’s horses lost, he could not expect a welcoming reception. The only question was how bad would it be.

Fires lined the perimetre of the Queen’s camp and there were guards armed with spears. Patrick was scouting out a pathway into the camp when he was startled by movement from the darkness to the side. He turned quickly, taking hold of his axe.

‘Patrick, is that you?’ The voice was urgent and kindly and somehow familiar. Patrick strained through the darkness to identify the shadowy figure coming towards him. ‘Melania?’ he finally called out.

‘That’s right. I’ve been waiting for you.’

‘How did you know it was me?’

‘I saw you in the bath, remember,’ Melania replied mischievously. ‘I know well what you look like. Where have you been? You’re late to return.’

They walked to each other until they could at last make out each other’s face in the dull moonlight.

‘Have you been waiting long?’

‘Ages and I am quite cold. But it pained me to think the people I had prepared a bath for one day would not be around the next.’

‘Unfortunately, only one of us is still around.’

‘That is a shame. Banoche was a good man.’

‘That was his name?’

‘A name already forgotten by almost all.’

Patrick was taken by the priceless simplicity of Melania’s looks and her voice that were so apparent now that he was at last alone with her. ‘That his name is remembered by you would be a preferable legacy to having a statue forged of lifeless bronze,’ he said.

‘It is good you feel that way, for you are in danger of a similar fate. At the behest of the Executioner, the Queen has had you outlawed.’

Patrick paused. ‘And you would suggest I run?’

‘That is not a good idea. She has men with senses heightened by pink gold. They will find you wherever you hide.’

‘Then what do you suggest?’

‘You must surrender. Explain yourself to the Queen. She will spare you from the Executioner, I am sure of it.’

‘I would not let myself be enslaved either.’

‘A prisoner for one night is all that I ask. The Queen is at her most reasonable in the mornings. We will take you to her then.’

Patrick smiled into her eyes. ‘Where am I to be tonight, then?’

Melania took his arm. ‘Come along, prisoner.’

Chapter 15

The Desperate Captain

 

‘What are you eating?’ asked the drunk boat captain, Sarius Sarius, sticking his finger into the bowl to taste the broth for himself. ‘Potato stew? Or is that just how my finger tastes dipped in your water?’

He was a well-built, rugged thirty year old with short black hair, intense blue eyes and large nose and ears. As a young man his facial features had appeared odd and disjointed, but with maturity and a hardening of his body, they had come together to form an impressively handsome whole. He was a regular customer in this small ten table thermopolium in the sleepy village of Rayal, located on the southern shore of Lake Shikijoma, and it was well known that when he was in this kind of mood, the best thing to do was keep out of his way until the mood had passed – like one of those fierce squalls that would churn up the lake from time to time. Sarius Sarius jumped up onto the table at which he had been consuming jugs of wine in spectacular quantities and bellowed at his fellow diners bent dourly over their bowls, ‘We all know what our meals are lacking: juicy, succulent fish. The staple of Rayal. But dreaming about it won’t fill our bowls.’ He kicked his own bowl of watery stew onto the floor, flapping his arms to maintain his balance on the chunky chestnut table. He picked up his goblet of wine and gulped down the last of it. ‘We know exactly what we want and Lake Shikijoma is right at our doorstep as it always has been. I don’t have the crew but I still have the best boat around. The Jellikoe has survived every storm that has lashed at it and every creature that has bitten into it. So, what are we waiting for?’ His legs were starting to wobble as though he were at sea in one of those storms. ‘Let’s get some hooks and nets and oars and we’ll have our bowls brimming with fish again.’

‘It is not what we want to eat that matters,’ grumbled one of the many fishermen in the thermopolium. ‘It is what wants to eat us that makes us wary.’

‘Coward! Even if we go as far out into the lake as we can and return empty handed, the bowls of slop served off this counter will have never tasted better.’

Sarius Sarius jumped down onto the dusty floor and was about to spring up onto the cracked masonry of the thermopolium’s L-shaped counter when the proprietor, Llamil, rushed forward, his large, overfed stomach just the cushion to absorb Sarius Sarius’s advance.

‘Are you sure your bravery does not originate from my wine?’ said Llamil.

‘How can you say that,’ Sarius Sarius decried, ‘when I drank more yesterday?’

Llamil possessed a hand span to envelope a fair portion of any arm, and Sarius Sarius’s were not as broad as they were back in the days when he was the best boat builder and oarsman in Rayal. Llamil clamped down tight but smiled sympathetically, yearning for a return of the days when there were enough ingredients in his pots to appease the fussiest of appetites. ‘Calm down, Sarius Sarius. You’re a captain looking for a crew and clearly there isn’t a willing one to be found here.’

‘Cowards!’ Sarius Sarius shouted again at the top of his voice.

‘Don’t be like that. Anyway, there is hope for you. A group of Romans recently arrived in town looking for a boat to hire. And a captain too. They had no luck here, either.’

Sarius Sarius stared at him intently. ‘Do they want to catch fish?’

‘I sense they want more than that. They were fighting men. They reminded me of the centurions of times gone by.’

Sarius Sarius was suddenly cold sober. ‘Did they tell you their names?’

‘The leader called himself Rhakotis.’

‘Where are they now?’

‘I think they have returned to the port. There were five of them, and quite a fetching young woman was accompanying them.’

Sarius Sarius marched away saying, ‘I would clean up my lunch but I think the floor is a suitable serving dish for the clientele here.’

 

*

 

The Immunes were not hard to pick out from amongst the people around Rayal’s lakeside wharf, for they were painstakingly sharpening their swords while others were idling away their time with empty conversation and fast-emptying bottles of the local wine. The Immunes had bought for themselves a rickety old longboat that had long ago been dragged up onto dry land and left to rot, and that had become their temporary base. Cimber and Squillus were sitting back against the hull and Mulchis and Kaen were standing. Sarius Sarius approached them cautiously, recognising exponents of war when he saw them. ‘Good afternoon, gentleman,’ he said still at some distance. ‘I have been informed that you are looking for a vessel.’

The four men glanced passed their swords at Sarius Sarius with varying degrees of interest.

‘Who’s asking?’ murmured Cimber.

‘I am Sarius Sarius, the finest boat builder and captain in Rayal.’

‘Is that so? Well, I have a respect for boat builders so let me put this nicely. Do you not see us standing in the company of a boat and would that not suggest we have found a boat?’

Sarius Sarius shook his head disparagingly. ‘If this is the boat you have found, plainly the search is not yet over. Allow me to demonstrate.’ He picked up one of the oars laid out on the ground and proceeded to smash into the hull in a blistering rampage. Each blow left its mark on the oak hull until it was completely stoved in. When the oar snapped, he picked up another and continued the onslaught.

The Immunes smirked despite themselves. Squillus inspected the damage. ‘You know the boat is supposed to float?’

‘Take a look around the port and what do you see?’ said Sarius Sarius panting. ‘Boats. Lots of boats. And none of them going anywhere. Because you need to do more than just float if you want to go out onto Lake Shikijoma these days.’ He chortled in a strange, morose laugh. ‘The boats that aren’t here are the ones that learnt the hard way.’

‘And what danger in particular are you referring to?’ came a hard voice from behind. All eyes turned to see it was Rhakotis, returning with Dafius at his side and a map of Lake Shikijoma in hand.

Sarius Sarius reflexively stepped back. He immediately realised that Rhakotis had been the missing piece from the group, that with his addition they truly were a formidable force. He realised if it was fear he was trying to instil in this group, he would need to work hard. The advantage he had was he himself had never experienced a fear to match it. ‘The last attack was only a few days ago. It was the hideous screams that drew the villagers to the bluff. The fishermen were keeping their boats close to the shore, chastened by the rumours of deadly creatures roaming the lake – wary but sceptical.’ He shook his head and shivered. ‘Flying fish have always been considered princes of water. Graceful creatures whose presence assure a captain of calm conditions. They are the only fish a seafarer can talk to and still consider himself sane. But the school that came upon the fleet on this day bore evil all the way to their gills. They shot into the fisherman like arrows – arrows with razor sharp teeth. Hundreds and hundreds of them. They came in waves of unquenchable fury. From the shore I watched the lake turn red. The bravest men of the village had ventured out in the quest to fill their baskets with fish and now it was only their blood returning home, washing up upon the shore.’

‘It is not the first time we have been warned of danger from the people of Rayal,’ said Rhakotis. ‘But it does not alter our travel plans.’

Sarius Sarius shrugged. ‘The one thing it does do is explain why you can’t hire a captain and his boat. No one would expect to live through your voyage.’

Rhakotis frowned. ‘We understand, and this boat that you’ve just destroyed is the only one we could afford to buy.’

‘You should thank me. You would have been swimming before long. Where did you intend to take this particular vessel anyway?’

‘The cliffs leading to Matholwich Forest.’

Sarius Sarius chuckled. ‘That’s the far side of the lake. A very long way when there are fish that want to kill you.’ He stood up straight. ‘I have the strongest boat in the village. The Jellikoe. No oar will beat it up or even leave a mark. I will let you have it without cost so long as you agree to replace that map of yours with my own personal navigation.’

‘So, you’d like to come along? Is that because you are in a rush for the afterlife?’

‘In this place I feel I’m dead already. Without fish and wine what else is there?’

‘Spoken like a true Roman.’

‘I am happy that the best of us, the Immunes, would recognise it.’

‘Who said we were Immunes?’

‘No one. And no need to deny it either. I am old enough to remember the days before Britain was surrendered to the Saxons. I know who you are.’

Rhakotis looked to the others and saw the smirks that came from encountering a kindred spirit. He nodded to Sarius Sarius. ‘You have made it hard for us to decline your offer. We would be happy to take your boat on our voyage. We leave at dawn.’

Chapter 16

The Warriors Arise

 

The Queen’s Executioner entered the tent of young women with a candle sending out light through the misty night.

The women were asleep on beds of hay, their outer-clothes folded in neat piles between them. With faces buried amidst hair and hay, identities were not easily recognised. Despite that, the Executioner was taking more time than was necessary, his eyes devouring each woman in turn, the candle coming so close that a fire was a genuine risk. When he came upon Melania, he stopped altogether, his yellow tinged eyes ceasing to blink.

Melania stirred from her sleep, somehow sensing his presence. At the moment her eyes opened, he clamped a hand onto her mouth to suppress any sound she might make. ‘Are you afraid?’ he whispered. ‘The Queen’s Executioner is not a welcome sight to wake up to. I would announce myself with another title if there were one that I possessed. Unfortunately, I have given up my name in the service of the Queen. It is, therefore, the Queen’s Executioner that is visiting you now.’ He could not resist giving her petite figure another lustful glance. She had beautiful breasts and a waist just the way he liked it. He grinned lecherously. ‘My title, it must be said, doesn’t fully encapsulate what I do. The Queen asks me a question and I answer it. But it is rarely answered completely until a head is removed from its neck.’ He snickered, displaying a set of decaying teeth. ‘She has asked me a new question now. How many people must die before Penycher is tamed?’ He poured hot melted candle wax in a line across Melania’s neck, holding on tight as she tried to shake free. ‘It will take at least two more nice clean cuts like this.’

Melania finally managed to slap his hand away. ‘Patrick came voluntarily back to camp,’ she said. ‘We will request an audience with the Queen in the morning.’

The Executioner smirked. ‘And what can he possibly say? The Queen’s Sacrifice is dead. The Queen’s horses are missing. The forest is out of control. The Queen’s authority is undermined. So, executions will clearly be needed to restore the balance. An Irishman who refused to serve his lords in Penycher Pit will be the perfect choice. You may have escorted Patrick into the camp but the guards at his tent have been ordered to kill you if you try to lead him away again.’

Melania went to say some more, but the Executioner grabbed her by the throat. ‘A long, slender neck,’ he hissed. ‘A sculpture that will be mine to sever. Losing your heart to the likes of the axeman, you must cut as softly as butter. Obviously being cosseted amidst the royal entourage left you vulnerable to the charms of a lesser man. I am tempted to take it upon myself to educate you in what a real man feels like.’ He stroked her thigh. ‘A head so pretty might even be worth keeping on the body while I do it.’

Melania drew back repugnantly. ‘You’re sick.’

‘Don’t be like that, child,’ he whispered icily. ‘No one here will get in our way.’ He raised his voice, suspecting that as quiet as the tent was, the other young ladies-in-waiting had been roused from their sleep and were now lying in terrified silence. ‘It will be certain death to anyone who utters a word against us.’

‘They are all asleep,’ Melania implored.

‘Really?’ The Executioner chuckled. ‘So many sound sleepers. I am envious. My own sleep is all too often disturbed by the pitiful howls of those I have executed. They come to me night after night. But it is nothing more than cantankerous bellowing. If you ask me, such grotesque noises only vindicates my hewing off their heads in the first instance.’ He paused a moment. ‘There is another voice too, the sublimely pure voice of the Queen herself. She whispers to me during executions, guiding my hands on the axe. And she has whispered to me tonight. She said your name, Melania.’ He blew out the candle and backed away from the bed. ‘In the morning you’ll be mine.’ His footsteps could be heard departing the tent.

Melania rubbed her stinging neck and stared blankly up at the roof. Her heart was pounding and the rush of blood screamed in her ears. There was muffled sobbing amongst the young women around her.

 

*

 

The long night had passed for Patrick in a small tent with a bed, a table and six guards standing watch outside. Patrick was pacing back and forth, the pink gold he had ingested surging through his body still. His senses were wildly alert and he heard from a long way off the approaching footsteps across soggy ground of the Queen’s camp.

‘By order of the Queen, I am bringing food for the prisoner,’ barked a voice.

‘Very well,’ replied the senior guard at the entrance.

The tent flap flew open and Turnstone, the Queen’s Stewman, entered with a large bowl of stew in his hands. He looked over Patrick and smirked. ‘Sleep well?’

‘I have slept better,’ Patrick replied.

‘I had a long night myself. I was in the forest gathering ingredients for an upcoming feast.’ Turnstone put a bowl of stew down on the table. ‘Leftovers from the Queen’s dinner last night.’

‘Thank you,’ said Patrick. ‘Is it poisoned?’

Turnstone smirked. ‘I thought you would have realised by now executions here come with an axe. An axe not too dissimilar to your own.’

‘You might have brought that with your stew.’

‘A little too big to pass as cutlery. But there is one particular ingredient of the stew you might find particularly appetising.’

Patrick noticed something circular in shape sitting down in the stew. He picked it out and dabbed into the goblet of water beside it. As the stew washed off, glistening gold was revealed. Patrick’s eyes widened upon it.

‘Gold cones,’ said Turnstone. ‘You have been paid to protect the village. I would hire you now to protect the Queen.’

Patrick frowned. ‘The Queen this morning will decide whether or not to have me executed.’

‘That is true but there is something else that is happening this morning. The Queen’s army will assault Merdel’s tower. The Queen believes the serpents and the wizard will prove no match for her weight of soldiers. She may be right too, but there is another force she has not reckoned on. A secret army biding its time for the right moment to attack. Like most of what is out there in Matholwich Forest, it is mysterious and dangerous.’

‘What army?’

‘Their uniform consists of black robes and they are silent killers – I mean, they cut out their own tongues. They are called Death Monks.’

‘You’re making that up.’

‘You’ll see them soon enough. They have the same hunger for pink gold as the Queen. They are rallying their forces out in the forest. They will wait for the Queen’s army to penetrate Merdel’s tower and then ambush them.’

‘That sounds ominous but shouldn’t you be telling the Queen about it rather than me?’

Turnstone folded his arms. ‘There is someone else to consider. Merdel, sitting on his chest of pink gold, has obtained the one thing of worth that can outlive him: knowledge. He has been spending his days filling scrolls with ideas. Inventions, cures and methods. But if we don’t help him now, all will be lost. All will be wasted.’

‘If he surrenders his supply of pink gold to the Saxons, there won’t be anyone of a mind to bother him and no need to rescue him.’

Turnstone shook his head adamantly. ‘The Saxon lords want blood and their army is ready to attack. Why would they show mercy when they are certain one man will not have a chance against them?’

‘You are also just one man. And, I must say, you do not talk much like a cook.’

Turnstone smirked. ‘But what is a cook? Someone who is skilled at combining the natural elements in perfect blends to create something special.’

Patrick eyed him probingly. ‘You’re a wizard?’

Turnstone’s smirk widened. ‘Yes, I am. But there are different kinds. Merdel is a wizard of wisdom, whereas I am a wizard of war. My mission is to rescue Merdel from the tower and lead him to safety.’

‘Safety? Where could that be?’

‘There is an island across the oceans named Sardania. A place of great beauty. Pink gold is nothing more than a shadow compared to its sunsets. And it is a good place to live with its villages the very epitome of civilisation and culture. With the new ideas Merdel brings, it will be even better. You are welcome to join us. The old women of the monastery will take care of you. They are healers and you will be their revered guest.’

Patrick shrugged sardonically. ‘What makes you think I will require healing?’

‘Pink gold is unstable – the strength it brings is fleeting and ends in sickness and death. Merdel saw you ingest some last night. The euphoria you feel is only the first stage of a horrible illness. Eventually, you will lose your hair and your teeth and your bones will turn to powder.’

Patrick swallowed hard. ‘Then the Brotherhood of Pink Gold is also doomed.’

‘Yes, but they are not invited to Sardania. Their fate is sealed. The Queen, however, can wait in Sardania for the scourge to run its course. When all the warriors fuelled by pink gold are gone, she will be able to return to Glywysing to be its queen again.’

Patrick mulled over what Turnstone had said, looking over the gold coin in his fingers. ‘If Sardania is my only chance to live, why would you bother paying for my services in gold?’

‘Health is not a currency for trade. To rescue a queen, gold coin is a fair payment.’

‘If she knows nothing of the things you have said, she will not come willingly. Kidnap will be a more accurate description of what I will have to do.’

Turnstone nodded. ‘That is true. She is meeting the lords of Penycher now before the day’s battle begins and then she will give you an opportunity to beg for your life. How peculiar considering you will be the only one who will be able to save her. Escort her to Merdel’s tower. You will find me there with horses and carriage.’

Patrick glared incredulously. ‘You would have me abduct the queen and take her to the place where her army will be converging?’

Turnstone grinned and slapped him on the arm. ‘Now you understand why I am paying you in gold. The good kind. Now I must go. There is still much to be done.’ He started for the entrance. ‘Enjoy my stew but be careful you don’t break your teeth on its main ingredient.’

Patrick watched him leave the tent and turned his attention to the stew. He tipped it out onto the table and poured the goblet out over it. Ten pieces of gold were revealed within.

 

*

 

The Queen’s soldiers were gathered in their hundreds just beyond the camp on the banks of a gently flowing stream, its position chosen for its relatively clean waters upstream of Penycher Pit. The soldiers were assembled on horseback and on foot. Having marched through Matholwich Forest unscathed, they were relaxed and confident. They had brought with them carriages laden with siege equipment, and they were heavily armed with swords, spears and bows.

The lords of Penycher Pit rode towards them through the morning fog. Lord Zwingli, the army’s general, was waiting to receive them atop his white stallion, Collusus. Zwingli and Martory came together and exchanged pleasantries.

Zwingli then straightened up on his horse to project his voice to all corners of his army. ‘Now that we are all assembled, the battle can begin. The Queen would have the Brotherhood of Pink Gold kneel before her and pledge loyalty. But she cannot ask this currently, for she has no one to match them in battle should they refuse. The lords of Penycher Pit, however, have this morning knelt before the Queen and sworn their undying loyalty and so now it is time to arm them with pink gold.’ He gestured to Martory and the other lords beside him. ‘We need to give them the power to defend the Queen’s honour and so the Wizard Merdel must die. The scale of our army may not reflect the numbers of our enemy but it does attest to the gravity of our purpose. If we fail today, there is every chance the Kingdom of Glywysing will fall. So, we must fight like we have never fought before.’ He could see that his soldiers were listening attentively, their strong bodies and gleaming swords a sight to behold. He raised his sword boldly into the air. ‘Serpents and wizards will be stricken before us, and whoever else that dares interfere with our purpose.’

The army cheered excitedly. Orders were given and the march for Merdel’s tower began.

 

*

 

The Death Monks were sitting cross-legged in circles three deep with a fire in the centre. They were drinking blood wine from goblets and chanting in deep resonant voices. Few words were spoken, not least because many of the Death Monks had cut out their tongues as evidence of their devotion. On the walls of the cave there were charcoal sketches of Penycher and Merdel’s tower. Swords were piled underneath in masses of superbly sharpened steel.

One of the monks suddenly sprung to his feet and threw off his robes to reveal his naked body, riddled with scars and covered in tattoos of skulls. He hissed and flexed his chest muscles and lustfully emptied his goblet of blood wine out over his face. The monks sitting before him began pounding their heads into closed fists in an ecstatic frenzy. The noise reverberated off the cave walls in a hideous cacophony.

The naked monk turned on the wall sketches, punching them ferociously until his knuckles were split open. He dabbed his fingers into the blood and added to the sketches on the walls skulls just like those tattooed upon him.

Chapter 17

The Journey to the Cave

 

It was a still morning and the fish weren’t biting – a relief for the crew of the Jellikoe, for in these waters it was human flesh the fish craved.

The sun had grown from a dark orange snippet on the horizon when the boat first set out from Rayal to now be well into the sky and starting to deliver its warmth. The cliffs of Lake Shikijoma’s northern end were steadily taking form beyond the bow, marking the final stage of the journey. The Immunes were rowing in a fast, unrelenting rhythm that way.

‘You have rowed well,’ called out Sarius Sarius to the Immunes, gripping the till tightly in the Jellikoe’s stern. ‘But even on a calm day such as this, there will be powerful currents bouncing off the cliffs, so if you wish to rest before we encounter them, there would be no shame in it; after all, you have already covered the distance twice as fast as any crew that has launched onto Lake Shikijoma.’

Rhakotis looked up from his oar. ‘Twice as fast is only barely enough for our liking. If we are to die today, it will be at speed.’

‘Very well,’ murmured Sarius Sarius. ‘Having come this far, I think I have shown a willingness to sacrifice my own life for your cause. What is troubling me, however, is I do not know what your cause is.’

‘What is troubling me,’ snapped Kaen, ‘is that you want to know.’

‘Let’s tell him,’ said Cimber breathlessly. ‘As tempting as it may be, we can’t keep stupidity all to ourselves.’

Mulchis was paying little heed to what was being said, preoccupied with the imposing cliffs ahead; he pointed an excited finger at the steepest, sheerest section. ‘The cave is there!’

‘How do you know?’ snapped Squillus. ‘All that ugly rock looks the same.’

‘I know because looking that way gives me the same feeling as last time with Nero and Valitino. The feeling that somebody is about to die.’

Rhakotis glared at him ruefully and turned to Sarius Sarius. ‘We are going to climb that cliff. We are not going to give you an explanation of our purpose but we will at least offer you choices. You can tie up your vessel and wait for three days while we pursue our mission. Or you can return to Rayal without delay, testing your luck alone against the schools of killer fish that have spooked you.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘Or you can come with us.’

Sarius Sarius did not need to think. ‘Of course, I want to accompany you.’ He turned to Mulchis. ‘Now make clear exactly which part of the cliff we are to go to and I will steer us there.’

The instructions were given and it wasn’t long before Sarius Sarius had successfully navigated the swirling currents to have the Jellikoe touching upon the base of the cliff. Rhakotis was the first to disembark, landing with sure feet on an uneven platform of slippery rock just above the waterline. ‘Everyone out,’ he said. ‘We’ll pull the boat up here. And be careful. Having guided us through treacherous waters, even putting a scratch in its hull might upset the gods that have obviously taken a shine to it.’

‘Perhaps it is us the gods have taken a shine to,’ said Squillus, easing himself out of the boat.

‘I’m not one of those generals that promise the favours of gods,’ said Rhakotis. ‘My only pledge is that if you are in my army, you won’t die alone.’ He helped Dafius out of the boat. ‘You too must decide if you wish to accompany us. It will be too late halfway up the cliff to have a change of heart.’

Dafius looked up the cliff face. ‘I’ll go first.’

Rhakotis smirked and turned to Mulchis. ‘You’re going with her. Take the route you remember, not the most scenic.’

Mulchis rushed a piece of mushroom into his mouth. ‘Yes, General.’

The band of Immunes hauled the boat up the sharply contorted rock to the very base of the cliff and set about strapping to their backs and legs the weapons they were seeking to replace. Rhakotis secured three swords to his back and returned his gaze to Mulchis and Dafius at the cliff face. He was startled to see they had already commenced their ascent. They were making swift progress along a deep fissure, stretching high up into the cliff.

Rhakotis nodded, impressed. ‘Centurions again.’

*

 

‘Be careful,’ Mulchis cried back at Dafius, clinging to the cliff face at a dizzying height. ‘The entrance to the cave is a nasty overhang. Its sheer slippery polished rock demanding full attention and commitment and not too much care, for hesitation will be fatal. I suppose it’s why I chose it.’ He gazed out over Lake Shikijoma before harnessing his concentration. ‘Watch carefully what I do. If I slip, I won’t get a second chance. You’ll be the second chance.’

Dafius wedged her feet into firm footholds in the rock and glanced about to satisfy herself there was no alternative course. She had to concede there wasn’t. ‘Alright, I’m looking.’

Mulchis gritted his teeth and sprung up off the cliff. He moved diagonally through the air, one hand slapping the base of the overhang to maintain his momentum and the other hand reaching across to catch the lip of the cave in its fingertips. He clung on desperately, absorbing the momentum that threatened to rip his handhold away. Dangling over oblivion, he waited for stillness to come to his body before sending his other hand to the ledge. He paused again, feeling the rhythm of the cold winds buffeting the cliff. He took in a lungful of air and propelled himself upward, digging his elbows into the rock like they were posts. He came eye to eye with the flagon of wine he had left behind the last time in readiness for this exact moment. The flagon’s eye had been painstakingly engraved by a Syrian craftsman and was meant to represent the approval of the gods. Mulchis pulled off the lid with his mouth and took as big a draft as he could manage whilst keeping his elbows locked in place. The wine was the perfect blend of sweet and bitter.

‘That’s how you do it,’ he called out to Dafius.

He gazed further into the cave to see that everything else was also as he had left it. There was a rope ladder folded in a neat pile, there were tall clay pots lining the walls, and there were more flagons of wine. Mulchis wiggled further into the cave and rolled onto his back; he took the flagon and poured it onto his face, catching some of the wine in his mouth and enjoying how the rest washed from his cheeks the dirt, perspiration and sting of wind burn.

‘Mulchis? Is it really you?’

The voice came from the darkness in the back of the cave and caused Mulchis to choke on what little wine was left in his mouth. He spun clumsily onto his hands and knees to see a thin silhouette moving towards him. He reached instinctively for his dagger, trying to make out the features of the face. All he could register, however, were the voice and body shape being female, unthreatening and somehow familiar.

‘Who is it?’ he said quietly.

‘Cokael.’

‘Cokael?’

The young woman could hold herself back no more and dived upon him with a tight embrace. ‘I’m so glad to see you. At first when I heard your approach I thought you were a dreadwolf. They are the most hideous creatures I have ever seen.’

Mulchis returned her embrace though the difficult climb had weakened his grip. ‘They are nearby?’

‘One was stalking me in the forest. I climbed a tree to flee it, but with its huge claws it started to cut the tree down. Then inexplicably it left. From the tree-top I could see Lake Shikijoma was near and so I came here seeking shelter.’

‘And you managed to reach here by climbing down? I considered that to be impossible’

‘I had no choice but to try.’

‘So, how did we become separated? And where is Nero?’

Cokael’s voice became tremulous. ‘Nero and I took a moment to be alone. We were intending to catch up with you at Pollio’s Garden.’ She paused. ‘But the storm came. And there are many dangers in the forest. Both man and beast.’

Mulchis frowned gravely. ‘Nero didn’t make it?’

‘I don’t think so. Nor Valitino. It’s a miracle that I am still alive.’

‘Hopefully your good luck rubs off on us. All that trouble to hide our weapons and now we are here to take them right back. Who would have guessed?’

‘Mulchis, what are you doing?’ called out Dafius impatiently from the cliff face. ‘I hear voices. Are you talking to yourself?’

‘A friend has been waiting for us,’ Mulchis shouted back. ‘I’m throwing you a rope now.’ He picked up the rope ladder and tested the integrity of the knots, particularly those anchoring it to the wall, before launching it over the cliff’s edge. It soon pulled tight under Dafius’s weight. Dafius emerged at the top of the rope and gave the cave a quick glance over, her eyes settling on Cokael. ‘You must be the friend.’

Cokael nodded. ‘My name is Cokael.’

‘I’m Dafius.’

Mulchis pointed Dafius to one of the large clay pots at the back of the cave. ‘Inside that pot is your father’s ornaments and weapons. You are their inheritor.’

Dafius stared at the pot a long moment. ‘I see.’

‘There is also food and drink. We did not keep much water, for we were concerned it might spoil. But there is plenty of good wine. Shall I pour you a cup?’

Dafius nodded and climbed all the way off the ladder.

The remainder of the Immunes followed in quick succession. Rhakotis was last, murmuring in a gravel voice, ‘Mulchis, that leap of yours was the act of someone quite deranged.’

Mulchis, with a cup of wine in hand, merely shrugged. ‘I’ve done it a few times now. I’m getting used to it.’

Rhakotis lingered at the cave entrance, peering up at the remainder of the cliff face to be traversed. ‘How do you rate the rest of the climb?’

‘Getting to the top of the cliff we can manage,’ said Mulchis. ‘From there, however, it might not be the most pleasant of walks. Cokael, the betrothed of Nero, sought refuge here. She says there was a dreadwolf stalking her, a very big one.’

Rhakotis glanced her way. Even from afar he could see the sadness in her eyes. ‘Nero would have been a good man to have here now,’ he said softly.

‘Mulchis,’ cried Squillus from beside one of the pots, a gleaming gold armband in hand, ‘this is far shinier than when I handed it over for safekeeping. Is everything else in this pot mine? It is hard to tell. Decades of bloody campaigns had left them looking very much the worse for wear and yet now it as though my past has been polished anew.’

‘You’ll find your blades are sharpened as well. I knew that if we returned to this cave it was because miraculously there was a cause worth fighting for. Something to live and die for. I spent long nights polishing armour wondering what that might be.’

Squillus slipped the band on. ‘You’ve done well.’

‘Alright,’ said Rhakotis, raising his voice to address everyone. ‘Take only what you need. The cave will be our rallying point. If we are dispersed and live to talk about it, here is where we will come. We leave for Penycher in a few moments.’

Mulchis pointed to one of the pots. ‘That one is yours, Rhakotis. It cost me countless blisters removing the blood and grime from the gold of your ornamentation.’

‘Thank you,’ said Rhakotis as he went to it expectantly. ‘And do you have something for Kaen?’

Mulchis walked to a cluster of pots located in a dark corner of the cave. ‘These belonged to Nero. Hopefully you are only borrowing them.’

Kaen removed two of the lids and gazed inside at the weapons and neatly folded uniforms of a Roman centurion. ‘I would be honoured,’ he murmured. ‘However, there is something to be said for me remaining dressed as I am, a Mercian. I could scout ahead unmolested, report back on the state of events in Penycher.’

‘Never mind that,’ replied Rhakotis forthrightly. ‘Creeping around the shadows with plots and schemes is what poisoned the Empire. It will not rise again by doing more of the same.’ He slapped him hard on the arm. ‘We attack.’

Chapter 18

The Battle for Merdel’s Tower

 

The Queen’s army had surrounded the tower’s moat and the archers were the first to strike, darkening the sky with arrows.

From the platform at the top of the tower, Merdel had been watching with an easy curiosity the forces gather, and as the arrows bore down, he retreated behind the thick walls of the tower’s interior. The arrows bounced off them as harmlessly as rain drops. For Lord Zwingli, overseeing the siege from upon Collusus, the result was nonetheless encouraging: whatever pink gold could do for a wizard, deflecting arrows was not one of them. It told him Merdel could be killed. And Zwingli had a whole army to do it. He turned to the messenger standing at attention by his side ready to receive instructions. ‘Move the scaling ladders into position on all sides. Foot-soldiers are to advance upon them to the tower.’

‘Yes, Sire,’ said the messenger, a crack in his voice betraying the tension of what was to come. A moat with man-eating serpents was a battlefield conjured in a nightmare. The messenger relaxed his lips and blew the one short retort upon his brass and ivory horn to signal the next phase of the attack. The scaling ladders brought forward to the tower had been made as long as physically possible so as to reach high above the moat. There were four in all and with large teams of soldiers behind them touched upon the tower on different sides at exactly the same moment. The soldiers that poured onto them had removed their body armour, desperate to make the ascent as quickly as possible. Handpicked for their agility and speed, they made rapid progress. The moat remained still as they moved out over it – the menacing black waters not accepting even a glint from the sun beaming down from the freshly woken sky.

The archers’ barage continued upon the tower with unerring accuracy, not a single arrow straying near the advancing soldiers. It was an army well used to breaching forts, its coordination precise and its movement methodical and relentless. The leading soldiers upon the ladders were soon in range for their grappling hooks. But with their eyes focussed upon the top of the tower, they did not immediately see the black liquid running down the ladders towards them. It was quietly being poured out from the highest of the tower’s narrow slit-windows, and was as black as the moat below.

‘Oil!’ came a cry from amongst the soldiers, but there was nothing to be done, the ladders too packed for the soldiers to reverse. The oil quickly reached their hands and feert and they began to slip. And as they fell, the ladders started to shake and quiver and that sent more soldiers tumbling down. The serpents lurking within the moat burst to life, furiously churning up the waters into fountains of red. Amidst hideous screams, the soldiers were being torn to pieces. And the serpents were not pausing to consume what their jaws had taken. It was death without hunger.

The soldiers around the moat watched on in horror, tossing down ropes for those frantically swimming towards the moat’s side walls. Some made it, but mostly they didn’t. The moat’s waters had changed to an even darker shade of black as the blood ran freely. The archers were frustratedly poised to fire their arrows, the serpents coming to the surface only as fleeting glimpses of slimy grey bodies and viscious sets of flesh-tearing teeth.

Zwingli grimly watched over the mayhem from abreast his stallion, remaining at the rear of the siege force. Martory rode up beside him with a heavy frown. ‘A nasty business.’

‘Any death in the name of the Queen should be considered glorious,’ replied Zwingli curtly.

‘I know some people who might disagree with you right about now.’

Zwingli turned to his messenger. ‘Send the next wave at once.’

‘Up the ladders, My Lord?’ queried the messenger unable to contain his reservation.

‘Unless they want to swim to the tower, yes. Tell them to carry chains. That will prevent slippage.’

The messenger bowed deeply and hurried away to pass on the order.

‘Of course,’ continued Martory to Zwingli, ‘if the wizard decides to light the oil, the chains won’t help much. I question whether the wizard knows much about magic, but I am ssure he understands the combination of oil and fire.’

‘You’re probably right, but the question is how hard are we prepared to fight to win this battle? Digging deeper and deeper in that muddy pit of yours is a complete waste of time. Now you’ll see how true Saxons fight.’

Martory felt the slight and if Zwingli hadn’t represented the Queen, he would have sliced his head off right there and then. He clutched the necklace encrusted with a pebble of pink gold under his shirt, knowing that with its power he could cut swathes through Zwingli and his men. Numbers would barely be a consideration. It was the seductive self-assurrance that he was sure all the Brotherhood of Pink Gold possessed. The Queen’s Sacrifice had been killed and the Queen’s army was being routed at the hands of a single wizard. The Brotherhood of Pink Gold would read defeat on this battlefield as a loss of legitimacy. Lord Volte was the one that concerned Martory the most. He had been dangerously ambitious even before pulling out a fist-size piece of pink gold from Penycher Pit, back in the early days – the biggest piece found by a Saxon lord. Volte would see that as evidence enough of his right to be king. The Queen’s failure here would persuade the Brotherhood of his claim. Martory would die before he allowed Volte to become ruler. So, the battle against the wizard simply had to be won. Martory turned to Zwingli and gnarled, ‘I’m watching. We may need a grave as deep as Penycher Pit for all the soldiers we lose. But I’m watching.’

 

*

 

The screams of dying soldiers could be heard from the Queen’s camp. A paleness was noticeable about the Queen, even beyond the layers of white foundation she used to conceal the age and blotchiness of her skin. She was sitting in her superbly crafted, jewel-encrusted throne in her large, luxuriously furnished tent, her attention fluttering between her Executioner and the man he was requesting to decaptitate before her: Patrick the Axeman.

‘Your army is at this very moment fighting to confirm your right to rule Glywysing,’ said the Queen’s Executioner, standing erect before her, his hair and beard oiled black and his eyes a lifeless grey. ‘Until news of its victory arrives, the best we can do is to secure the home ground, to hasten the death of those who are not loyal enough to surrender their lives for you.’

‘Are you accusing this man of cowardice?’ queried Queen Rachel dubiously, not seeing a trace of fear in Patrick despite his life having become an open question and the guards around him ensuring any sentence would be swiftly carried out.

‘Let’s see if he trembles when his neck is under my axe,’ replied the Executioner. ‘For now, it is enough to decree it the only fate he deserves.’

‘Are you certain he would not die for me? After all, I do not recall ordering him to do so.’

The Executioner pursed his lips frustratedly. She was going to make him earn this one. Probably she was just happy for the distraction, to take her mind off the battle raging just beyond the village. No matter, who was he to do anything but to comply with her wishers? He retained his patient, measured tone of voice: ‘When your Sacrifice and your most cherished horses have failed to return from a task, the guide must be held accountable. Stories of giant wolves will simply not do.’ He gestured disdainfully at Patrick. ‘The man does not have a mark on him. Especially for your poor, innocent horses, there should have been resistance.’

The Executioner was striking a nerve, for the Queen was missing her horses badly. ‘He has a point,’ she said bluntly at Patrick. ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’

Patrick was trying to decipher from her voice whether she had already made up her mind as to his fate. Should he invest thought in choosing his words well or focus his attention on how to kill his way out of the tent? Certainly, his pledge to Turnstone to protect the Queen would dissolve if she granted his execution. For that reason, words still had a place in the moment.

‘I agree that your horses were innocent,’ said Patrick. ‘And the only comfort I can offer you is the assurance that the dreadwolf that claimed them did not fare so well against my axe. I did not think to bring its head back as some kind of proof. I did not think the Queen was interested in macabre trophies.’

‘You may have miscalculated there,’ replied the Queen abruptly. ‘When vexed, I take great comfort in seeing a head removed from its body.’ She wanted to consider her decision with some clarity but was being thwarted by all the distant screams – and some closer ones as well.’ She leaned towards one of her personal guards. ‘If I am not mistaken there are no women in my army.’

‘That is correct, my Queen.’

‘Then explain to me why I can hear women screaming.’ Her voice was punctuated by an outbreak of screams that were louder and closer still and left no doubt the camp was under attack. The Queen stood up, her eyes widening and her voice wavering as she exclaimed, ‘It is the Brotherhood of Pink Gold.’

Patrick felt a surge of pre-battle excitement. Judging by the screams, however, he doubted it was the Brotherhood of Pink Gold, for they were Saxon lords and would not be hacking their way through the women and children of the camp. He turned expectantly to the tent’s entrance, suspecting they were soon about to find out who it really was. The two men that rushed inside were truly terrifying and exactly what he had imagined when Turnstone first mentioned them. The tattoed faces, immensely strong bodies, long black robes, blood stained weapons: the Death Monks.

The Queen’s guards rushed to engage them and although they were the best solidiers at the Queen’s disposal, they were cut down as perfunctorily as wheat at harvet time. The Queen fell stunned back into her throne, aghast at the existence of such a ferocious enemy. ‘Kill them at once,’ she called out feebly. The guards at Patrick’s side rushed forward to join the fray. Patrick was particularly interested to see how they fared against the monks. He had been setting himself to overpower them if his execution had been ordered and he had the chance now to see how they measured up in battle. The answer revealed itself to be not very well – at least, not very well against the pure killing of the Death Monks. Their sword thrusts were easily deflected and, with a glint of madness in their eyes, the monks sliced through their throats in a grotesque display of spurting blood.

Patrick had only seem death being so hungrily carried out when farm animals were being slaughtered for a feast, and was certain all the occupants in the tent would be slaughtered in a similar manner if the monks were not stopped. He sought out Melania to find she had replaced the guards beside him and was holding up Agrestis. ‘You’ll need this,’ she said with surprising calmness.

‘Thank you.’ Patrick took the axe and rushed the monks. He swung hard and plunged the axehead into one of the monk’s forehead. The wild fury evaporated from the monk’s eyes as they rolled upwards in death and the body crumpled to the ground. The other monk lunged at Patrick with his sword speering for his heart. Patrick caught the blade under his arm in a chicken wing and viciously punched the man in the throat, a part of the body that training could not strengthen. The monk collapsed to his knees, gasping for air, leaving the sword behind with Patrick. Patrick stamped down on the monk with his foot and ran him through with his own blade. He stepped away to Melania and took her wrist. ‘Are you hurt?’

Melania shook her head. ‘I’m alright. But if you want me to hold your axe again, you better fetch it yourself.’

Patrick nodded. ‘Sure.’ He yanked the axe free. ‘I’ll keep it for the time being. Don’t you have your own weapon?’ He pointed to the sword he had lodged between the other monk’s ribs. ‘If not, that one cuts quite well.’

He strode over to the Queen, who was gazing at him probingly. ‘Those two hooded beasts cut through my best guards like they were ingredients in a stew,’ the Queen said. ‘And yet you killed them both. One with your axe and the other with your bare hands.’

‘Turnstone asked me to protect you.’

‘You came here to protect me? Before we were interupted, I was deciding whether or not to put you to death.’

Patrick glanced at the Executioner, who was standing behind the Queen with a look of barely contained rage. ‘I was confident you would warm to me.’

‘I would kill you if I could,’ the Executioner hissed back.

‘Until you start winning battles against the likes of those,’ interjected the Queen, ‘you’d best leave him alone.’ She glanced at Patrick. ‘Where is Turnstone now?’

‘I will take you there. But we need to go now.’

‘What makes you think I would follow you?’

Patrick pointed to the dead guards. ‘Because the best you have aren’t going anywhere.’

Queen Rachel glanced in the direction of the screams and battlecries beyond the tent as the attack continued to rage. ‘Turnstone is the best cook I have known,’ she conceded. ‘But I have often wondered if he is more than just a cook. He is, isn’t he?’

‘He would have you see what else he is capable of,’ Patrick murmured.

Queen Rachel sprung up onto her feet. ‘Very well. Let’s go.’

Patrick picked up a knife and cut a long slit down the tent wall. He peered out across the muddy ground littered with bodies and burning tents to the forest beyond. ‘Follow me quietly and quickly,’ he said to the party behind him. ‘The forest is close enough that we have a good chance of reaching it unseen.’ He smirked at the Executioner. ‘But if the Death Monks are to discover us, it will be interesting to see how you fare against those with weapons of their own.’

The Executioner silently snarled back at him.

Patrick let Agrestis pass by his throat as he led the Queen’s entourage out of the tent.

 

*

 

The Queen’s soldiers were once again high on the ladders on their way to Merdel’s tower. The chains were holding them to the slippery surface, but it was a journey that could not be rushed despite the horrific deaths awaiting in the moat below. The soldiers kept their eyes firmly fixed on the ladder beneath them and the tower’s stone walls tantalising near – distraction came, however, with a dozen galloping horses bearing a carriage and a train of cages. The carriage roared from the forest road onto the battlefield. It was an impressive sight and for the soldiers upon the ladders a comforting reminder of the overwhelming superiority of the Queen’s forces, for they were certain it was just another dimension to Lord Zwingli’s assault. Perhaps a catapult and coals for ammunition, or netting to straddle the moat, or possibly something even more exotic: after all, Zwingli had been known to drop his enemies from heights into pots of boiling oil and pits of poisonous vipers, and the Wizard Merdel had done much to provoke such a response. As the carriage train pulled up at the moat’s edge, its cages became visible, as did the presence of shadowy shapes prancing within – some kind of enormous wild dogs. Falgarn, the leading soldier upon the closest ladder, cried, ‘Lord Zwingli has brought his pets to be fed and today a wizard is on the menu.’ A rousing cheer from the soldiers sharing his ladder was followed by an extra spurt of energy in the push for the tower. Down on ground lever, however, Zwingli was watching the carriage train in stunned silence, realising that within the cages were the one kind of creature he thought it impossible to bring to captivity: the dreadwolf. There were four cages and a half dozen dreadwolfs in each. They were prancing from side to side, eyeing the army around them with a primeval anger. Already rattled by how easily the first wave of his assault had been repelled, this new threat upon the battlefield shook Zwingli to the core – this was a battle for which his tried and true strategies were simply not going to cut through.

‘What are your orders, Lord Zwingli?’ queried his messenger anxiously.

Zwingli shuffled Collusus across for a better view of the carriage train and its driver and his eyes widened with surprise. ‘It is the Queen’s Stewman, Turnstone,’ he declared. His instinct was to unleash the archers’ fury upon him, but he balked, well aware the axe of the Queen’s Executioner upon his neck would be the inevitable consequence of miscalculation. He turned to Martory who was by his side. ‘Did the Queen mention this to you?’

‘I have heard her compliment Turnstone’s cooking,’ Martory murmured. ‘But I haven’t heard her speak of this, of her cook with cages full of dreadwolfs. And she wouldn’t be able to explain how such creatures could get pink gold off a wizard.’ His voice darkened. ‘She wouldn’t need to explain how they could tear your army to pieces because that speaks for itself.’

The comment struck home and Zwingli turned sharply to the messenger. ‘Unleash the archers upon the carriage.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’ The messenger moved to transmit the order when a spear abruptly penetrated his chest. He reflexively tried to rip it out but death quickly took hold, his mouth that had been open to scream went limp and he collapsed onto his back.

Other spears were also finding their targets at the same moment. The rampaging Death Monks had swept through the Queen’s Camp, killing all before them, advancing upon the Queen’s army with no fear of the superior numbers. With their black robes, tattooed faces, sharpened teeth and wide open tongue-less mouths, they were truly a hideous sight, rendering many of the Queen’s soldiers stupefied before their enormous swords.

Martory and Zwingli swung down from their horses and rushed to engage them. Despite their personal animosity, they instinctively remained together, aware that even for the Queen’s best fighters, Death Monks were going to be a formidable opponent. They chose one who was on his own and moved in from different directions. The monk, however, had swords in both hands and the blades moved at speed and with complete independence, making it seem for each Saxon lord that the fight was one against one. It was Martory that finally broke through the monk’s defences, slashing his arm tendons and sending the sword dropping to the ground. The monk continued to fight with his remaining good arm, but it was only a matter of time before Martory saw the opening he had been waiting for and ran his sword through the man’s back and into his heart.

Zwingli waited until the monk had hit the ground before putting his own blade into the monk’s chest, not convinced that one would be enough to kill him. ‘What kind of army is this?’ he cried, watching in horror as mayhem engulfed the battlefield.

‘A nasty one,’ said Martory. ‘And they are after the same thing as us. That means we need to start killing them a whole lot better than you and I just did.’

‘What order can I give that will achieve that?’ barked Zwingli, wiping the perspiration from his brow.

Martory looked beyond the onslaught of the Death Monks scything through the Queen’s soldiers to Turnstone on the roof of the carriage. ‘I daresay there is no point giving an order if there is no one left to follow it,’ he murmured as he realised what Turnstone was about to do. ‘I think we had better move to higher ground.’

‘What are you talking about?’ snapped Zwingli angrily. ‘I am not about to retreat. We are on the cusp of victory. Our men are within reach of Merdel’s tower. Once they are armed with pink gold, they will be invincible.’ He sprinted away to engage another Death Monk.

Martory did not follow him. He watched Turnstone lifting open the first of the cage doors and the dreadwolfs within bolting out onto the battlefield, and he looked for the nearest tree to climb.

Turnstone jumped from cage to cage until all the doors were open and all the dreadwolfs were away. The dreadwolfs went on a rampage upon the battlefield with an insatiable thirst to kill. Death Monks and Queen’s soldiers, locked in battle, did not see them coming and were savagely set upon. Throats were torn out before screams could find their voice; and limbs were ripped away before swords could be swung in defence. Archers took shots at the creatures, but the arrows seemed only to enrage them further.

The soldiers upon the ladders watched aghast as their army was decimated and suddenly they were feeling they were in the safest place upon the battlefield. For those on Falgarn’s ladder, however, the thought was over in a moment. Merdel had returned to the tower platform and lowered by rope his chest of pink gold and scrolls onto the ladder above them. ‘You want your share of treasure,’ he called out. ‘Well, catch it.’ He let go and the chest hurtled down the ladder, so well lubricated in oil. Falgarn and all the soldiers behind him were sent flying helplessly into the moat. The serpents were once again stirred.

Turnstone had cut the cages loose and repositioned his carriage at the bottom of the ladder. Bales of hay broke the chest’s descent and Turnstone quickly set about hoisting it up towards the carriage using a winch and pulley mounted on top of the carriage. Merdel came careering down the ladder not long after the chest, submerging into the hay.

‘Your dreadwolfs are not friendly,’ he murmured as he picked himself up and brushed hay off his robes. ‘Not friendly at all.’

‘They can’t seem to help it,’ said Turnstone.

‘When you spoke of a diversion, I didn’t realise you meant a massacre.’

‘Well, now you know what a war wizard means when he speaks of such things.’

Merdel went to the chest and worked with Turnstone in guiding it into the carriage. There was a creaking of joints as the carriage somewhat reluctantly absorbed the weight. Even amidst the baggy robes, Turnstone could see that Merdel was impressively muscled. ‘You’re looking fit,’ he murmured.

‘Pink gold does seem to return a man to his youth,’ replied Merdel.

‘We better land on the opposite side of Sardinia Island to where all the women are,’ said Turnstone as he hurried to the carriage’s front seat and took hold of the horses’ reigns. ‘I do not want to be around when you try to make up for forty years lost time.’

Merdel sat beside him. ‘It has’t been forty years.’

Turnstone whipped the horses into a gallop. ‘Whatever.’

 

*

 

Death Monks retrieved their spears from the bodies of dead soldiers and the occasional dreadwolf and joined in the sprint for Turnstone’s carriage. Lord Zwingli, on the back of Calluses, was leading the charge of Queen’s soldiers. ‘The pink gold is on board the carriage!’ he declared. ‘We must stop -’ His words were cut short by a spear striking him in the shoulder and knocking him to the ground. A pair of dreadwolfs caught him in their jaws and kept running, fighting over him until he had split in two.

Merdel and Turnstone grimly watched from the front of the carriage. ‘A bad way to die,’ Merdel muttered. ‘Let’s get away from here.’

‘We cannot just yet,’ replied Turnstone, guiding the carriage in a wide turn across the battlefield. ‘We have some passengers to pick up first.’

Merdel glared. ‘Passengers?’

Turnstone pointed to where Patrick was guiding Queen Rachel and her entourage out of the forest by the tower moat. ‘There they are.’

‘The Queen?’ grumbled Merdel, incredulously. ‘She just sent her army to kill me.’

‘That’s true. But the people need a queen and if this one is gone, the power vacuum will cost many lives and the ruler Glywysing eventually gets will have been made bitter and ruthless from the experience.’

Merdel surveyed first the converging armies and second the slow moving queen and her guards and beautiful attendants, sparsely protected by Patrick, the Executioner and a couple of guards. ‘It’s going to be tight.’

Turnstone pulled the carriage to a stop as close to the Queen as he could get. ‘Go welcome our guests.’ He pulled out a bow and fifty arrows contained within a leather holder from under the seat. ‘I will buy you some time. Get as many on board as you can, but as soon as the arrows are finished, we’re leaving.’ He sprung up onto the roof and started picking off monks and soldiers with an unerring accuracy. A sixth sense sent him ducking just in time to avoid a spear heading right for his heart. He slipped under it and repaid the culprit with an arrow to the throat. He finished on one knee in a perfectly balanced firing position and set about holding back the converging armies.

 

*

 

Melania held Queen Rachel’s arm, assisting her through the last few paces to the carriage – the flushed cheeks and hard breathing indicated that despite her fondness for battles, this was no warrior queen. Merdel was standing by the central steps leading up into the carriage a frown biting into his brow. His disquiet was only heightened when he noticed the Executioner right behind her. How they would be received on Sardania Island he shuddered to think. He only hoped he had enough good ideas written upon his scrolls to compensate for this bad one. ‘Watch your step, Queen Rachel,’ he muttered dourly as she reached the carriage. ‘You wouldn’t want to trip and hurt yourself.’

‘I’m halfway through my arrows,’ called out Turnstone from the roof.

Patrick strode to the steps and hurried the Queen along with a firm push in the behind. The Queen gasped with surprise as she tumbled into the carriage.

Patrick turned to Melania. ‘You’re next.’

‘I’ll slap your face if you try that with me,’ Melania replied.

‘It would be worth it,’ said Patrick with a smirk. But as she started up the steps, he detected in the corner of his eye an enormous Death Monk approaching the carriage. He was just about the biggest man Patrick had ever seen. The bloodied swords gripped in his hands were made to look like mere knives and the robes covering him resembled a tent with legs. Patrick wondered why Turnstone had not already taken a shot at him. He was such a massive target he couldn’t have been missed. The two surviving members of the Queen’s guard were panicked into rushing him without due consideration and were both dead in an instant, the monk’s swords splitting them open from head to chest. As blood spurted wildly the ladies-in-waiting at the carriage steps released a collective scream.

Patrick stepped between them and the Death Monk, raising Agrestis into a striking position. ‘Alright, big monk. Let’s cut you up nice and small.’

The Death Monk stopped and smiled cruelly, his lips moistened with excitement.

‘I’m down to my last arrow,’ warned Turnstone from above.

‘We could do with it down here,’ Patrick called back.

Turnstone’s head appeared over the edge of the roof, peering down at the Death Monk. ‘Yes, indeed.’ He trained the arrow upon him and drew back the bow-string. ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ Suddenly he spun round and shot the arrow high in the air in the opposite direction. ‘Oh, dear. I slipped.’ In the next moment, however, there was a distant shriek of agony. The arrow had pierced the neck of Martory in his treetop refuge. The shriek turned to a grotesque gargle as blood flooded the windpipe. Martory fell onto the ground and he frantically kicked and punched as a dreadwolf lunged upon him with its flesh tearing teeth fully bared.

Turnstone turned back to Patrick and lowered the bow. ‘Apologies, my friend. Anyway, arrows would be little more than splinters for that giant.’ He rushed back to the driver’s seat and cracked his whip at the horses. ‘Time to leave!’

The Executioner gave the last lady-in-waiting on the steps a frantic shove and climbed on board as the carriage began to move. He turned back to Patrick. ‘Die well, servant.’

Patrick was left alone to face the Death Monk. He knew if he made a move for the ladder, his exposed back would be instantly split open by steel.

‘Patrick, run!’ screamed Melania distraught from the doorway as the carriage quickly gained momentum.

The Death Monk chuckled and lifted back his hood to reveal a hideously scarred face tattooed in knives. ‘My name is Galanga,’ he growled.

‘I thought Death Monks cut out their tongues,’ Patrick murmured.

‘Mine grew back.’ The monk’s lips curled upwards in a murderous grin, displaying a fearsome set of sharpened teeth.

Patrick noticed behind him two dreadwolfs bounding across the battlefield towards them. He rushed at Galanga on an instinct rather than a plan. He saw the monk’s eyes focus upon his neck and he dropped down low. Galanga’s blades wisped overhead too fast to see and Patrick sprung up, swiping Agrestis across his face. Galanga did not flinch, but blood began to run into his eyes, impairing his vision and preoccupying a hand as he tried to wipe the blood away. Patrick launched his axe in a powerful throw, embedding it Galanga’s forehead. Death was instantaneous.

Patrick dived under the falling body just as the dreadwolfs arrived. The beasts sniffed around, nudging at Galanga with their snouts. The body, however, was too heavy to budge and they quickly lost interest, rushing away in the search for fresh victims.

Patrick squeezed out from the enormous body, gasping from breath. He pried Agrestis loose and looked around for Turnstone’s carriage. The deep ruts upon the forest road made plain the direction it had gone. Patrick knew he would have to move fast if he wanted to catch it. He looked around the battlefield for transport, and locked eyes on the white stallion, Collusus, standing loyally beside the remains of its fallen master. He ran that way, negotiating a course amongst the bodies that littered the ground and the last pocket of soldiers and monks engaged in battle. An arrow struck him in the chest, sending him flying onto his back. For a moment he lay stunned, his vision blurred and he wondered if he was dying right there and then. He put his hand on the arrow-shaft protruding from his ribs and fought the temptation to wrench it free, aware that arrowheads inflicted even more damage coming out than they did going in. He raised himself onto his elbows and sought out the person who had fired it. He spotted the archer in a kneeling position just in time to take evasive action as another arrow was fired. It nicked his ear and he sprinted at the archer, noticing an arrow protruding from him as well, lodged in his throat. It was Lord Martory. The mauling from the dreadwolf had left his entire body bloody and torn and his face gripped by pain. But he was still functioning and he was set to fire again. Patrick threw Agrestis further than he had ever thrown it before it cut clean through the bow and lodged deep in Martory’s face. The blood streamed down as Martory crumpled dead to the ground.

Patrick took back Agrestis and slung it over his shoulder. He swayed for a moment, almost collapsing, but gathered himself and ran to Collusus. He mounted its saddle and sent it into a gallop into the forest. His body immediately began to sag, the beautifully soft white mane under him fast turning red.

 

*

 

The Immunes arrived onto the battlefield a short time later. They moved carefully and with weapons drawn despite the only signs of life around them being a few groaning, mortally wounded soldiers.

‘We must be heading in the right direction,’ murmured Cimber. ‘In this quest, the dead are the road markers.’

Kaen looked up at Merdel’s tower with the scaling ladders still upon it and nodded his understanding. ‘Two armies have fought over the Wizard Merdel’s stash of pink gold. The battlefield gives no clue as to who was the victor.’

‘No clue at all,’ said Squillus grimly. ‘Have you noticed that many of the bodies have been chewed up by some rather big teeth? It is as though death has had a feast.’

Rhakotis was out front of the group and studied the bodies a little more closely than before. ‘You might be right. All dead bodies look the same to me.’ He squatted down and gestured for the others to join him in a huddle. ‘What I do know is that none of the blood spilt on this battlefield is yet ours. If we want to keep it that way, it may be time to go home.’

‘No chance,’ replied Cimber adamantly. ‘We haven’t been on a battlefield this bloody since the days we were fighting for Rome itself. So, possibly the prize at stake today is just as valuable.’

Rhakotis glanced around the band of Immunes and the hard, determined stares confirmed there were no dissenting voices amongst them. ‘Very well.’ He turned to Kaen. ‘Tell me more about this place.’

‘Penycher Pit is to the east,’ replied Kaen, pointing, ‘and the village is a short distance through the forest to the west. Either the pink gold has been taken away from here by the battle’s survivors or all its suitors have killed each other in the attempt.’

Rhakotis gestured to the empty cages. ‘There was a carriage with horses. We should follow it.’

‘We may find horses in the village,’ said Cimber. ‘But will there be time?’

‘Kaen, tell me, how many roads through Matholwich Forest are wide enough to take a carriage of size.’

‘There are only two in any condition. One goes to Londinium and the other to the coast.’

Rhakotis pondered this a moment and sprung up. ‘They’re heading for the coast.’

Chapter 19

The Plea

 

The carriage was tearing along the forest road.

Turnstone and Merdel sat watchfully at the front, breathing the dust stirred up by the dozen charging horses ahead. Swords were resting on their laps and throwing knives were in wooden holders at their feet.

Turnstone was gripping the reigns tightly in both hands, uneasy despite the relative straightness and smoothness of the road. It was Merdel that had him most on edge: the youthful colour that had returned to his beard and to his cheeks, the searing intensity of his eyes, and, more than anything, the intense body heat radiating off him – it was akin to sitting by a raging campfire, and it had brought a thick perspiration to Turnstone’s brow. Merdel was aware of his discomfort but chose not to raise the topic.

The Executioner’s emergence from within the carriage would have come as a welcome diversion if only it had not been him. ‘Merdel, the Queen beckons you for an audience,’ the Executioner commanded from atop the carriage’s interior ladder.

‘This is not the time for conversation,’ interjected Turnstone curtly. ‘Our enemies will not be far behind us and they will be moving quickly.’

‘Then answer her as you are. Where are we going?’

‘To the coast.’

‘And how do we open the chest of pink gold? It is somehow locked.’

‘There is a secret latch,’ replied Merdel. ‘And it will remain secret until we are upon Sardania.

‘Queen Rachel requires proof before she agrees to be taken along by you. She needs to see that you possess what you claim.’

‘I claim to possess the source of true power and destruction,’ snapped Merdel. ‘If you bother me, you’ll certainly see I possess what I claim.’

Turnstone suddenly pulled back on the reigns to slow the carriage. ‘Speaking of trouble, there’s a horseman ahead.’

Merdel looked that way. ‘Who is it?’

‘Egren, the Chieftain of Penycher.’

Merdel looked some more. \‘So it is.’

The Executioner stretched up on the ladder for a better view, but all he could see was a distant figure on the road ahead. ‘How can you tell?’ he murmured, doubtfully.

The horseman, however, rode quickly towards them and it was not long before even the Executioner could see it was indeed the Chieftain – who he remembered mostly for his bit-part in his last execution.

Egren’s horse had been ridden hard and it arrived at the carriage panting heavily. Egren himself was looking pale and exhausted. ‘Penycher Village is being laid to ruin,’ he said urgently to the two wizards. ‘You must help us. Dreadwolfs and Death Monks are rampaging, and your pit is the root of all this horror. I hired Patrick the Axeman to protect us, but he is now dead.’

‘Excellent,’ said the Executioner, but he was bumped off the ladder by Melania who hurried to the top. ‘What happened to Patrick?’ she asked with a wavering voice.

Egren softened his voice. ‘An arrow to his chest. He was able to avenge himself before he rode off into the forest.’

‘So, you didn’t see him die?’

‘From my position in the bushes I couldn’t see clearly, but the arrow was deep.’ He paused. ‘He fought bravely while others ran away.’

Melania’s grip upon the ladder failed her, and she tumbled down into the lap of the Queen.

Egren looked to Merdel to continue his plea. ‘There are others in Penycher who may still be saved. I must have some of your pink gold. I cannot return without having some hope of defending it.’

‘The pink gold is no longer theirs to give,’ hissed the Executioner, reclaiming his spot upon the ladder. ‘It is the Queen’s property now.’

Queen Rachel, startled to her feet by Melania’s fall, stepped out of the carriage and walked up to the Chieftain. ‘Did you see what became of Zwigli and Martory?’ she murmured.

‘All of your lords are dead,’ Egren replied.

The Queen turned to the Executioner, who was loyally following her down the carriage steps. ‘Executioner, you will assume command of my army in my absence. Return to Penycher with the chieftain and watch over my kingdom until my return.’

The Executioner bowed deeply. ‘Yes, Your Highness.’

‘As you will no longer have the title of Executioner, you may have your name back. Lord Ledirre it is.’

‘Thank you,’ said the Executioner. ‘May I humbly request some of your pink gold to aid in the guardianship of your lands?’

‘I will trust you more if you do not have it,’ retorted the Queen dryly.

‘Wise decision,’ said Merdel. ‘The pink gold will soon turn to dust. If you don’t want your kingdom to do the same, you’d better learn to survive without it.’ He rolled up one of the sleeves of his robe to reveal an arm rutted with grotesque weeping ulcers. ‘Power comes with a price.’

Both the Queen and the Executioner’s eyes widened with the shock of it.

‘At least, allow me to take one of your horses,’ the Executioner finally managed to blurt out.

‘If the Chieftain could catch up to us, we obviously need to be going faster,’ said Merdel. ‘So, we cannot spare a single horse. The Queen’s new general can walk to his army.’ He let the sleeve drop back down over his wrist. ‘Queen Rachel, if you do not wish to be left behind, you had better get back on board.’

The Queen hurried to comply.

The carriage departed without delay spraying an agitated Executioner with mud. He glared at the Chieftain upon his horse. ‘Make room,’ he demanded.

Chapter 20

The Dragon Tear

 

Patrick rode into Pollio’s Garden more dead than alive, only able to guide Collusus with the weakest of nudges. Although his vision had deteriorated to little more than a blur, his sense of smell was able to confirm he was indeed in the right place. An intoxicating brew of a thousand different plants. There was nothing, however, to aid the untrained eye in distinguishing the life preserving from the life ending. All Patrick would be relying on was the experience garnered from a near fatal stab wound that had been treated by Pollio, back in the days when Matholwich Forest was still riven with bandits and killers rather than dreadwolfs – a far safer time. It was a purple cherry that had restored him to life, broke his fever and gave his body the strength to heal. He was trying to move in straight lines, to systematically cover the gardens from corner to corner in search of purple cherries. The gardens, however, were so dense, and the surrounding forests so uniformly featureless that Patrick would have struggled to orientate himself even with the full use of his faculties.

After much toil, during which he ruefully felt Turnstone’s carriage slipping further and further away, he came to a plant of jagged dark leaves and sharp prickles that had luscious purple cherries growing upon it. These were smaller than the cherries he remembered, but looked similar enough. He leaned forward for a closer inspection and, as the last of his strength seeped away, he tumbled into the bush. He became ever more tangled up in the prickles as he tried to fight his way out. He finally gave up and instead pulled off one of the cherries. He fought the urge to eat it unquestioningly. He pressed it against his nostrils and sniffed for the slightest hint of the flavour of his memory. There wasn’t any odour at all. He contemplated giving it a quick lick.

‘Tell me something, Patrick,’ came a voice from above. ‘Are you visiting my gardens looking to hasten the end or to try clinging to life? I ask because at the moment it is not immediately apparent.’

Patrick wriggled that way and looked up into the pale grey eyes of the tall, bearded, blue-eyed master gardener. ‘You remember me, Pollio?’ he murmured. ‘Perhaps, I should be flattered. But last time I was sliced open. And this time I’m not at my best, either.’

Pollio was dressed warmly in bear fur and was standing with his arms folded and a look of disconsternation on his face. ‘Well, if you take a bite of that plum, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. It’s one of the more painful deaths you can experience in my garden.’

‘So it’s not a cherry,’ murmured Patrick, tossing it away.

‘No, it isn’t.’ Pollio held out his hand and when Patrick took it, he hauled him out of the prickles. ‘Now what can I do for you? I dare say I don’t have anything in season capable of treating an arrow in the chest. Certainly not the cherries you’re looking for.’

‘I just need something with a kick. Something to keep me going a little longer.’

‘The Dragon Tear will be your best bet. It brings feelings of euphoria and boundless energy. It will give you a bump alright.’

‘Sounds perfect. But I can’t pay for it right now.’

‘I guessed that. People with arrows in their chest don’t usually come with a lot of money in their pockets. At least, it will get you away from here before you die. Having to turn one of my former customers into fertiliser would not be at all appealing.’

‘Well, I graciously accept your hospitality.’

‘Then come this way.’

They walked to a dark pocket of the garden dominated by weeds and rocks and it seemed very much as though it had succumbed to the forest it was encroaching upon. Pollio reached down between two rocks and emerged with a small mushroom. It bore a very pale tinge of blue. ‘I usually only recommend a nibble,’ Pollio said, ‘but in your case I’d suggest you eat the whole thing.’

Patrick took it and swallowed the mushroom head without pause. ‘How long before it takes affect?’

‘Get on your horse and start riding,’ said Pollio, brushing the dirt from his hands. ‘You’ll feel it soon enough. But be warned, many a soldier who has eaten the Dragon Tear mushroom has been undone by the confidence it brings. They become so fearless they think they are somehow impervious to sharpened steel and can dance around arrows.’

Patrick’s eyes suddenly jolted open wide as the mushroom hit him like a punch. ‘I see.’ He ran to Collusus, bounding onto its back in one movement and had it galloping away towards the coast.

Chapter 21

The Fall of the Executioner

 

Egren was keeping his mouth clamped shut, aware that if he started talking, his life might well be forfeited.

The precedent had been set. What had the vagrant done to warrant the Executioner’s axe upon his neck? Wonder aloud if the pink gold had fallen from the sky? That was just the kind of musing the Chieftain himself could so easily drift into. And he could sense the Executioner’s bad mood. The general of a ghost army, no longer able to personally remove the heads of those that opposed or annoyed him. No doubt he would be ordering it done in numbers aplenty. But it wasn’t a general’s place to carry out executions with his own hand. A cause of vexation that might easily see him hacking off a head out of pure spite.

Egren was also battling with himself to refrain from bringing his horse to a gallop on the return journey to Penycher. A bumpy journey was just as likely to spell his demise. Egren could only rue his predicament. He had rushed to intercept the Queen and the wizards and secure their assistance in the defence of his village, and all he had to show for it was a blood thirsty former executioner cuddling up to him from behind.

His musings were interrupted by a group of horse riders emerging ahead. The Executioner’s hands stiffened upon his waist, for the Roman uniforms were unmistakable. So colourful, shiny and polished. The scourge of Britain had somehow inexplicably returned.

‘Roman outlaws,’ whispered the Executioner into Egren’s ear. ‘Stay very calm.’

The riders were Rhakotis’s Immunes, and they broke off their tight formation to surround Egren and the Executioner and bring them to halt.

‘Two men sharing a horse in this forest likely have a story to tell,’ voiced Rhakotis, leaning forward on his chestnut horse to examine them. ‘And if it involves a carriage full of pink gold, we would like to hear about it.’

‘We don’t know anything about such things,’ replied the Executioner quickly. ‘We are simple farmers.’

Kaen frowned and declared, ‘The one at the front is Egren, Chieftain of Penycher. I am certain of it. He has often come to my village for meetings.’

Rhakotis studied Egren for a long moment and smiled. ‘Then not just a simple farmer. You have a reputation for being one of the best.’

Egren shrugged humbly. Kaen was so adamant, there was no point trying to deny who he was. ‘My farming can fortify the village against hunger, but it is not so effective against evil.’

‘We ventured into your village to get these horses, so I understand what you’re talking about,’ said Rhakotis. ‘The villagers were offering some resistance, at least. There were two brothers who were particularly willing.’

‘I know who you are referring to.’

‘Anyway, there is a village where all the farmers are adept with a blade – my village. You and everyone else from Penycher will be welcome to join us until the danger has subsided.’

‘We have to get back to Penycher immediately,’ snapped the Executioner.

Rhakotis returned his glare. ‘You do not look like a farmer. And I daresay you are not from Penycher. So you can do whatever you please. Only, it will be on foot. The chieftain is staying with us.’

‘You cannot expect me to walk in this forest. That is almost certain death.’

Rhakotis pointed his sword at him. ‘Your only other option is to die right now.’

The Executioner glanced around the Immunes and saw nothing but deadly stares. He dropped down off the horse and was again promptly sprayed with mud as the Immunes charged away.

‘Apologies for leaving your friend behind,’ Rhakotis called out to Egren. ‘I didn’t much like the look of him.’

‘He isn’t my friend,’ Egren replied.

‘I can believe that. A man with the body temperature of a corpse.’

‘I recognise these horses from the Queen’s camp. You really have been to Penycher.’

‘I spoke the truth about that and also about the offer of refuge.

‘What is the name of your village?’

‘You’ll find out when it’s time. Now, tell us how far away is the carriage of pink gold?’

‘Not far enough away for your own good, I fear.’

Rhakotis bent down low to extract more speed out of his colt. ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.’

 

*

 

The Executioner was crouching behind a tree, idly plucking out grass with one hand and holding a knife in the other. He had no intention of walking back to Penycher.

It was not a long wait before there came the pounding of an oncoming horse. The Executioner relaxed his knife arm and readied himself for the throw. He wasn’t of a mind to check who the rider was. Man or woman, young or old. He was going to take the horse and he wasn’t going to ask permission.

The horse and rider approached at speed and the Executioner sprung up, set to throw his knife, and he could not believe his luck: with an arrow protruding from his chest, just as the Chieftain had described, it was Patrick the Axeman. He was slumped in his saddle, looking very much worse for wear. But there was life enough to end, a priceless opportunity for revenge presenting itself. The Executioner stepped forward to the edge of the road and as Patrick came side on, he made the throw. He lost some of his accuracy for the extra force he put into it, but the knife still plunged into Patrick’s side, and sent him tumbling off the horse. Patrick bounced across the road and finished up face down and motionless in the roadside grass, the knife still wedged between his ribs.

The Executioner walked over to him, looking for signs of life – if the fall had pushed the arrow deeper into his chest, then surely he would be stone dead. He couldn’t see it, but the knife he had thrown was still sticking out of Patrick’s side. He was going to pluck it out and slit his throat but noticed a better option: Agrestis strapped to Patrick’s back. The Executioner pulled the axe free, toyed with the handle until it was resting comfortably in his hands and raised the axehead over Patrick’s neck. ‘The moment of your execution has arrived,’ he rejoiced. ‘What pleases me most is that it will be done with your own axe.’

Patrick suddenly spun round, lifting himself up with a grip on the Executioner’s belt and drove the arrowhead into the Executioner’s throat. The Executioner made a feeble attempt to counter strike with Agrestis but his body had lost its strength and he collapsed onto his knees, blood spurting freely from the wound. Gargling and gasping, he yanked the arrowhead away and tried desperately to compress his slit throat. Patrick pushed him over and laboured back to Collusus. He was dizzy and needed to channel all his strength to get himself back up onto the saddle. Collusus was ready for him, breaking into a gallop with the merest of touches. Patrick pulled the knife from his side and tossed it away.

Chapter 22

The Escape

 

The leper colony had been forged from suffering and it announced itself with the sweetly pungent smell of rotting flesh and death.

Turnstone had paid the lepers well to watch over his longboat moored to the end of the primitive village jetty. And it appeared they had performed their task well. The vessel was a solid, wooden plank construction and had sails and oars for propulsion. It was capable of venturing across oceans with heavy loads and it looked every bit ready for the long journey to Sardania.

The narrowness and poor condition of the murky, muddy road into the village, compelled Turnstone to move the carriage along at a crawl – that and the risk of running over the crippled lepers loitering about them. As wretched as their bodies were, the lepers were still capable of killing unwelcome visitors in the most sadistic of ways, and this combined with their grotesque sickness is what made Leprosy Cove the most feared corner of all Matholwich Forest. And added to that, Turnstone suspected the money he had paid them for this safe passage had mostly been spent on weapons. So, best not to upset them.

Finally reaching the base of the jetty, Turnstone drew the carriage to a halt. He climbed up onto the carriage roof and used its height to survey the ocean beyond the cove. The stiff onshore wind was whipping up whitecaps to the horizon. ‘It’s going to be a bumpy oopening to the journey,’ he voiced down to Merdel. ‘I will have to apologise in advance, for no doubt the Queen and her entourage will be wretching before long.’

Merdel gave the longboat a disparaging glance. ‘Amongst my scrolls is a new design for a boat that will be lighter, stronger and faster than anything currently on the water.’

‘How nice. Unfortunately, a militant leper colony is not the best place to build it. Especially with marauding armies in pursuit.’ Turnstone climbed down from the carriage. ‘I will fetch a cart to transfer the chest onto our boat with. If the Queen would like to intermingle with her subjects, I will leave that with you to arrange.’

Merdel sneered and leaned into the opening behind him. ‘We are here, Your Highness.’

Queen Rachel was peering out the window, mortified by the rows of decrepit shacks that made up the village. ‘Is this place what I think it is?’ she cried.

‘If you mean, is this place a part of your kindgom, yes it is,’ replied Merdel. ‘And let me say, the residents here might be rotting on the surface, but their insides are much purer than the lords you trust with your armies.’

‘The lords that I trust? Only those who have died in pursuit of my pink gold do I trust. And those that have got their hands on their own pink gold must die so that I can trust them too. What does that tell you about the nautre of pink gold?’

‘All that matters to me at the moment is that it’s heavy,’ said Merdel and turned away.

The Queen continued to stare in horror out the window.

Turnstone arrived quickly back at the carriage with a donkey and a cart. ‘Alright, let’s load the chest. The lepers are keeping their distance, but once they realise they are in the company of the queen that banished them to this forsaken place, that might change, that might change very quickly indeed.’

 

*

 

Astride the indefatigable Collusus, Patrick burst into Leper’s Cove from the forest and headed for the jetty. He could see the shadowy figures of the lepers peering out from their huts at this latest incursion into their village. For the lepers, the only difference this time was that they hadn’t been paid. Being the living dead, they made for a fearless enemy. The bow and arrow was their weapon of choice, and from their doors and windows they began to fire.

Patrick ducked down low as arrows hissed by and he felt an anger surging through him: he had had enough of arrows for one day. Remaining exposed on the village path was certain death and so he charged to the nearest shack, throwing himself through the wall and plunged Agrestis into the leper within. From there he began hacking his way from shack to shack, cutting through walls and lepers with equal intensity. By the time he reached the jetty, he was pale and blood soaked and drew a scream of horror from one of the Queen’s attendants inside the carriage. Melania rushed to grab him as he started to collapse. ‘Patrick, you made it!’

‘Don’t touch me,’ Patrick murmured. ‘I’m covered in leper blood.’

‘Don’t flatter yourself, much of it is yours.’ Melania pressed her lips tightly against his. ‘And besides, we’re going to an island of cures.’ She looked for the arrow wound in his chest and quickly found it. ‘You’re going to need it,’ she added.

‘Who are you kissing?’ barked Queen Rachel, stepping down from the carriage.

‘It’s Patrick,’ replied Melania

‘Really?’ Queen Rachel looked him up and down with a frown. ‘He looks terrible. But I suppose that’s what a survivor from Penycher would look like.’

Turnstone finished loading the chest onto the longboat and came too. ‘Hello, Patrick. For a moment there I thought you were one of the afflicted villagers.’

‘The villagers are trying to kill me,’ Patrick gnarled.

‘They don’t take kindly to strangers. That’s precisely why I chose this place.’ Turnstone observed the villagers massing further along the road with weapons and walking canes. ‘They don’t look very happy. Perhaps, I should introduce you to them.’

‘That wouldn’t be a good idea. We’ve already met.’

Turnstone frowned. ‘Are you talking about the blood on your axe?’

‘They started it.’

‘Come on, then.’ Turnstone slung Patrick’s arm over his shoulder. ‘Let’s get you on board.’ He called out to Queen Rachel and her attendants, ‘Unless you want to experience the hospitality of the locals, you’d best follow me.’

Moments later the longboat pulled away from the jetty with all on board and Merdel and Turnstone at the oars. The powerful strokes of the wizards had the boat moving away more quickly than the villagers anticipated. The arrows that filled the air had the accuracy but not the range to reach the longboat, dropping innocuoulsy into the waters of the cove. Pushing through the throng of villagers, however, was a group of tall, broad shouldered figures dressed in long dark robes, moving with speed and intent. They hurried to the end of the jetty where they stared at the departing longboat for a protracted moment before turning their attention to two canoes tied up to the side. They huddle together in a brief discussion before throwing off their robes to reveal the uniforms of the Roman centurian underneath – it was Rhakotis and the Immunes.

‘Our enemy are strong rowers,’ Rhakotis declared to his soldiers. ‘And they are wizards as well. But we are the Immunes. So, let’s go catch them.’

The Immunes cheered and hurried to the canoes, which sunk low in the water with the weight of their hulking bodies. Cimber, Mulchis, Sarius Sarius and Kaen took the lead boat while Dafius and Cokael and the remainder of the band joined Rhakotis.

‘You can stay behind if you’d like to,’ said Rhakotis to Egren, the last of their group still on the jetty. ‘This is not your fight.’

‘You mean, stay on a jetty full of agitated lepers?’ muttered the Chieftain incredulously. ‘I hardly think so.’

He joined Cimber’s canoe and was thrown onto his backside as it pulled away at speed. The Immunes in both canoes immediately showed themselves to be accomplished oarsmen, able to strike a frenetic rhythm and maintain it in perfect unison. The longboat quickly grew closer and closer.

‘Row harder,’ Rhakotis cried through gritted teeth. ‘We must catch them before they leave the cove. In the rougher waters of open sea, we will lose the advantage.’

The oarsmen responded with an extra heavy stroke that had their canoes skimming across the water.

‘This is better,’ said Rhakotis. ‘It has been a long journey to make it this far. And all that is left is one short moment. Only desire will take us there. Let’s show the wizards our hunger.’

Upon the longboat, the canoes’ advance had been noticed. Patrick slid Agrestis up onto his lap as he sat back against chest of pink gold. The two wizards were glancing across at the end of each stroke. And Queen Rachel was gnawing at her bottom lip as the sight of Roman uniforms brought back hideous memories of her family and kinsmen being executed before her – it may have happened a long time ago, back when she was only a little girl, but the feelings were suffocating her as though it were only yesterday. She supposed it was the reason why she had always been so eager to have an executioner of her own.

‘We cannot let them catch us,’ she blurted out in a voice wracked with anxiety. ‘If we must throw the cursed chest overboard, then so be it.’

‘It will be alright,’ said Melania, trying to soothe her, although she had only given the canoes a perfunctory glance, preoccupied as she was with dressing Patrick’s wounds, not giving a second thought to tearing into strips the silk handkerchief that had been a parting gift from her mother on the day she was offered into servitude in the Queen’s court. ‘I don’t think they are catching us.’

‘Indeed, they are,’ Merdel replied and looked to Turnstone. ‘My only wonder is if the war wizard has planned for this contingency.’

‘You know I have,’ smirked Turnstone coldly and picked up a bow and arrow that had been sitting on hooks on the side of the boat. He took careful aim at a large, half-submerged wooden cage moored to one side of the cove and fired. The arrow arced gracefully through the air and sliced in two the rope holding closed its door. A thick black torrent of flying fish immediately came pouring out and they surged just beneath the surface on a direct course for the Immunes.

‘You’re in for quite a spectacle,’ said Turnstone.

‘How did you manage to get so many fish into the cage?’ gasped Queen Rachel.

‘There were a lot more than that,’ Turnstone replied. ‘They must have been eating each other.’

‘Disgusting.’

A dead rabbit suddenly dropped into the longboat almost on top of the Queen and the shock of it almost sent her recoiling overboard. ‘What was that?’ she gasped, clutching onto her ruby necklace.

‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said Merdel. ‘That is just Orion, my eagle, ensuring we are well fed. She is very loyal.’ He smiled at the eagle circling the longboat amidst the cloud and tossed the rabbit Turnstone’s way. ‘I’m sure our stewman will be able to make our first dinner aboard something to remember.’

‘First night?’ muttered Queen Rachel. ‘How far away is Sardania?’

‘That depends on the winds. But I can promise you at least that we will all get to know each other very well.’

Turnstone smirked at Patrick surrendering himself to Melania’s care. ‘I know at least one person who won’t mind that.’

Melania glanced at him rigidly. ‘Have you packed aboard your herbs? I will need to bathe him well.’

‘Yes, indeed. But let’s get far from here first. My fish are by no means tame and there is a danger they will not find their meal of Roman centurions satisfying enough.’

 

*

 

After circling the canoes several times, the flying fish launched their assault, leaping at the Immunes with their razor sharp teeth set to slice and tear.

The Immunes were aware the fight was coming and had lashed their canoes together and were on their feet in a defensive circle. They met the onslaught with wildly slashing swords that sent a rain of fish gizzards down into their canoes – the cloud of fish was so dense it was virtually impossible to miss.

‘I told you!’ Sarius Sarius cried distraught. ‘This is exactly what happened on Lake Shikijoma! There were no survivors!’

A fish beat his blade and took a large chunk out of his cheek such that his back teeth were suddenly visible. His scream of agony drew a half-glance from Rhakotis, whose own facial cuts from the fish had so far been only superficial. ‘Keep your sword up, Sarius Sarius!’ Rhakotis cried. ‘Remember the company you are in. The Immunes do not die so easily.’

Sarius Sarius nodded and tried to compose himself behind his sword. But he lacked the strength and endurance of the Roman centurions. His stroke rate was slow and his arms rapidly tiring. And the flying fish kept coming. One sunk its teeth into his eye, eliciting a scream of horror. He writhed uncontrollably, desperate to rip the fish away, and when he managed it, his eye was no longer there.

‘Take the pain!’ Squillus shouted, trying to grab him. ‘Hold your position!’

It was too late, however. Sarius Sarius was irretrievably off balance and he tumbled into the icy, percolating waters of the cove. The submerged oily cloud hovering around the canoes converged upon him, turning the water a foamy red. Sarius Sarius continued to scream and thrash until the fish had reduced him to mere body parts bobbing about in the water. The hideous sight had both quietened the Immunes and hardened their resolve. They swung their swords as hard as ever, even as their muscles began to twitch and melt with fatigue. Kaen, however, dropped to his knees, weighed down by the mass of fish latched onto his body. He was becoming delirious and tried to climb into the water in a desperate attempt to cleanse himself of the grotesque weight only for Cimber to grab him by the ankles. Cimber pulled him back into the centre of the canoe and stabbed down upon the fish with his dagger in a maniacal blur. He was striking the fish so hard that the blade was cutting into the canoe’s hull, allowing trickles of water to mix with the blood and guts at the bottom. When there were no more fish upon Kaen, Cimber jumped back up to resume the battle against the cloud. He sensed Kaen stirring at the bottom of the canoe and pinned him down with his boot in case he still had eyes for the water. ‘Better stay where you are,’ he said. ‘The fish are certainly biting today.’ His sword sent more and more blood and guts raining down on Kaen and his own feet were completely submerged in the muck. In Rhakotis’s canoe, it was higher still, and the onslaught of flying fish was only now beginning to peter out. Heartened by the realisation respite was at hand, the Immunes applied themselves with a renewed ferocity until the fish were coming only in dribs and drabs and then not at all.

‘We’ve done it!’ cried Squillus jubilantly and collapsed exhausted into the back of the canoe. He picked up one of the fish heads hanging from his arm and cringed at the fearsome set of teeth. ‘Revolting.’

Rhakotis turned to Dafius, thankful that apart from a few scratches she had come away from the ordeal unscathed. Her cheeks were flushed from the effort she had put in and her hands were tightly clinging to her blood soaked knives. ‘Your father would be proud,’ Rhakotis said.

‘My father would be upset that we’ve let the Saxon queen get away.’

‘You’re right about that.’

They stood together, watching the longboat leaving the cove for open sea, its sails opening up to the easterly wind. A lone fish shot out of the water and Rhakotis caught it with his bare hands. He squashed it into slush and tossed it away. ‘But a general must know when his army has reached its limit, and that moment is now. It’s time to go home.’

‘I will need no convincing in coming with you,’ said Egren, sitting at the rear of the canoe. ‘If you farm like you fight, no one in your village will ever go hungry.’

‘It’s too soon to be talking about farming,’ said Rhakotis. ‘We don’t have the strength left to paddle out through the heads.’ He glanced back at the jetty. ‘Which only leaves a return to the village.’

‘And the lepers don’t seem to appreciate our presence.’

‘I will go find out.’ Rhakotis turned to Cimber and Kaen. ‘Give me your canoe. I have business.’

Cimber knew better than to argue despite the preposterousness of the idea. He picked up Kaen and swapped canoes with Rhakotis.

‘If things go bad,’ said Rhakotis, cutting the rope holding the canoes together, ‘leave me and head for the open sea. Take your chances in that direction. To lose the last of the Immunes in a lepers’ mass grave would be most unfortunate.’

Cimber shrugged. ‘A general’s orders are a lot more persuasive while he is still alive.’

Rhakotis handed Cimber his sword. ‘I will go unarmed.’

‘Be careful,’ said Dafius anxiously

Rhakotis nodded, keeping to himself the thought that soldiers who were careful lived longer but were forgotten far quicker. He knelt down in the middle of the canoe and with oar in hand began the journey back to the jetty. He glanced at the gathering of disfigured people upon it, noticing most the weapons that they possessed and the rags that they wore. Beneath his surface placidness was a readiness to react to any provocation. A weapon malevolently used would see him dive into the water and resurface onto the jetty with all the agility of a flying fish and he would disarm the first figure he came to and turn the weapon on the other villagers in a whirlwind. He did not, however, sense this was coming. The lepers were gazing at him in awe. The battle they had witnessed between Immunes and flying fish had made an impression.

Rhakotis reached the jetty unopposed and he tied up the canoe. He moved slowly and purposefully up the ladder, trying to mask the fact that there was no strength left in his arms. His legs, at least, were still capable and got him onto the walkway. The lepers moved in around him, gazing at him curiously. Their stench was overpowering.

‘Who is your leader?’ muttered Rhakotis.

‘We don’t have leaders in our village,’ replied a man in a deep, resonant voice, stepping to the fore. ‘But I will speak for us.’ He was a tall man and the arms protruding through his brown robes were stick thin. He pulled back his hood to reveal a face without a nose or ears. ‘My name is Lonsgreg.’

Rhakotis did not flinch with the sight of him. He had grown all too accustomed to the grotesque forms humans could take. ‘I am Rhakotis.’

‘You are an outlaw,’ Lonsgreg replied. ‘The Romans have been beaten from these lands.’

From his confident demeanour and straight posture, Rhakotis suspected he had once been someone of stature and authority before disease had ravaged him.

‘As you can see, we are still here,’ Rhakotis returned. ‘And we will take on any comers. But we would prefer to leave your village in peace. With your canoes returned.’

‘Is that so?’

‘We saw the Queen’s entourage hack its way through your people. Are they worthy of the kind of pain we dealt upon their fish?’

Lonsgreg was unmoved. ‘We are not fish and you will find that those who welcome death can be particularly hard to kill. So, you cannot intimidate us. And the fact remains you took our boats without permission.’

‘They are being returned full of fish.’ Rhakotis pointed down to the pieces of fish lapping in the blood and guts at the bottom of the canoe. ‘There is enough for a village feast.’

Lonsgreg’s lips bent slightly upwards in what might have been a smile. ‘It is a pitiful offer, even for the likes of us.’ He prodded with his sword the discarded robes upon the jetty that the Immunes had used to disguise themselves. ‘You took these robes from our dead, did you not?’

Rhakotis nodded and his eyes hardened. ‘It is a reason to be upset.’

‘On the contrary, for outcasts who draw revulsion and disgust with a mere glance, it is almost to feel human again. You put our clothes to your skin. For that honour, you are free to leave Lepers Cove unchallenged.’

Rhakotis contained his surprise and bowed his head. ‘Thank you.’

‘Of course, if you are tired, you may rest first.’ Lonsgreg’s smile was more discernible this time. ‘We can have that feast.’

Rhakotis saw the sincerity of the invitation in his eyes. ‘Thank you, but we must return with haste to Penycher. It has been laid to such waste it even makes this place look good.’ He turned to his fellow Immunes, who were watching attentively from out on the water, and waved them in.

 


Penycher Pit

It is the Dark Ages. Rome has been beaten from Britain and the old kingdoms are re-emerging from the ashes. In the Kingdom of Glywysing, the mysterious pink gold is bringing untold power to those in contact with it, both warriors and beasts alike. Armies, monks and outlaws are converging upon its source, willing to pay any price for its possession. As the final battle looms, Patrick the Axeman finds himself caught in the currents of conquest and desire that are flowing inevitably to Penycher Pit.

  • Author: Stuart Parker
  • Published: 2017-04-25 14:20:16
  • Words: 50396
Penycher Pit Penycher Pit