His gnarled stick supporting him, Paega halted at the lip of the ditch and peered over. The ashen dawn seemed reluctant to disperse the shadows from the nightmarish scene.
Throughout the night Cyneheard’s men had set about the task of dragging their former comrades-in-arms from the waves and stacking their sodden corpses. Inspired by whips and spear butts, Celtic slaves had spent laborious hours toiling with shovels and picks, hacking this immense pit from the shingle. After it had been lined with branches and drenched with buckets of pitch, the hundreds of drowned men had been cast into their mass grave, the living soldiers offering prayers to Tiw.
Cyneheard strode next to his shaman. Paega’s eyes remained rooted to the corpses, their arms and legs grotesquely twisted with the impact of being tossed onto this pyre. “I believe I can glean the required information if Celtic blood is being brought to the boil before my eyes.”
The Saxon thane nodded, the mead he had indulged in conspiring to present double the number of labourers cowering before their guards’ whips. “How many of the curs?”
“A couple should suffice.”
Cyneheard looked to one of the overseers. “Leofric. Choose two of the natives. Fuck it. Make it three. Add them to the pyre.” With that he raised his fist and smashed it into his other palm. Scores of arrows were touched to torches and archers unleashed their missiles into the bonfire of cadavers and wood. Cries pierced the inferno as the brawny warrior, Leofric, made his random selection of prisoners, hauling his wriggling victims to the edge of this hell before tossing them over.
When the conflagration rose in intensity, the spectating Saxons drew back. Cyneheard was also forced to relinquish his position overlooking the fire, the abrupt squeals of the sacrificed men giving way to an overwhelmingly nauseating stench of cooking meat. Paega remained staring into the flames, a curious grin spreading across his features. Cyneheard gazed at him, alarm rising. Although the heat was ferocious the old man swayed slightly, his arms reaching towards the funeral pyre the way any normal person might seek warmth from a winter hearth. Paega remained in this stance, impervious to the temperature extremes until the fire had devoured the brittle wood and turned the men within, living or dead, to charcoal.
Eventually he turned away, striding towards the point where the horses were tethered. Finding his own steed, he groped for the water skin, taking generous gulps, then tipping handfuls into his blackened palms before splashing himself. “As much to bring me out of the trance as quench my thirst, my thane,” he stated, acknowledging Cyneheard’s presence.
“Well? What did you see?”
“As I suspected, the witch lives. In my shamanic eye I saw the waves crashing into the timbers Modig had lashed her to, her and her companion … they were helped by more of the seal people, eventually finding their way onto a boat.”
Cyneheard frowned at this. “I thought we’d dealt with those infernal sea creatures.”
“Alas, my lord, Wade’s realm is vast, and there are many supernatural creatures out there.”
“What of the witch, Paega?”
“Her tribe know they cannot remain on their island now we know of them. I suspect they will all be making landfall on the far side of the Severn, soon enough.”
“So many of the Celtic rats flee to Cymru. We’ll root them out.” Pausing, he added: “Did you see anything else?”
“The witch knows about me. When she tried to read the mind of the boy in my possession, she knew someone was casting dark spells to block her. She suspects my power.”
“That is what I don’t like, Paega. I want you to make up your potion. We’ll send Leofric to their island, in wolf form. He’ll rip her limb from limb and feast on her warm guts. Then I’ll send a patrol towards the Mendips, with more of your potion, to finish off the rest of the bastards before they unite with their brethren in Cymru.”
“No? What the fuck do you mean no, Paega?”
Paega fixed the thane with such an unremittingly hateful stare that the warrior blanched. Ready to snap back, he found the words dissolving on his tongue, leaving him open-mouthed.
“You will listen to me, Cyneheard. When the witch escaped the tempest I found it most intriguing. I’ve sensed this before.”
“Don’t interrupt. I was aware of her strength when we came across the bandits she felled with her sling. And when Edwig was lost. As each of these events occured I felt a subtle change in my own powers. I felt them rejuvenating. Days ago I had to rely on a wolf warrior to follow her scent. I believe my own magical abilities are feeding off this witch. That is why my wolf warriors will not be going anywhere near her, Cyneheard. They may annihilate her kin, by all means. But not the girl.”
Paega snapped his fingers. Cyneheard felt his jaws loosening. “I … I see. You wish her kept alive. But won’t that be dangerous, Paega? Think of Edwig. His body washed ashore. As you said, she killed him. As she did Modig’s son.”
“Exactly, Cyneheard. The witch is growing in power. I want to harness that power, not snuff it out.”
“By the gods, you are playing with fire, Paega.”
“Fire … quite so. You know, before those flames began to die out, just for an instant, I managed to touch her mind. Fleetingly, I read her thoughts, as clearly as if the bitch was standing where you are and addressing me in our tongue. I believe she will eventually seek me out.”
“She aims to kill me.”
“If … if she wants to kill you, Paega, then why not take her head first?”
“I’ll tell you why, Cyneheard. I don’t want her blood … I want her magic. That is what I desire, more than anything else. When she does make her way to Wessex to find me, seeking vengeance, she’ll come skulking through the forest shadows. To snare the witch, I’ll have to flush her out in the open. For that I will set a trap. I need to bait that trap.”
“What trap, Paega?”
“Leave that to me, Cyneheard.”
“And if she is caught?”
“When she is caught I want her brought to me. I want our united powers to pass through my bloodline. Before I take her head I wish this pretty redheaded witch for my bed. Half-shaman, half-druid, my offspring will be the most powerful necromancer this world has ever known.”