The sun rose, round and yellow, brightening through the morning to a glaring disc against the sharp blue sky. On the high ridge of the hills north of Padascel three tiny shapes picked their way southwards, sweating and cursing, stumbling over hidden stones and uneven tufts of grass. Ahead of them a craggy line of mountains loomed, growing taller by the hour, and yet the figures never seemed any closer to their goal. Every time they struggled up a rise it was to find themselves facing another valley, and every stream they crossed was the same as the one before. The only indication they had of any progress being made was the dark shape of Craec Annwn receding behind them, and beyond it the forest whose trees were now no more than a vague green line in the distance.
As the day drew on, to their great relief, the mountains slowly began to move to their right. From time to time the two youngest looked up at their craggy faces and overhanging rocks casting deep black shadows, and longed to be in the shade. Fortunately they were not short of water, for at the bottom of every valley was a trickling stream, and by the time they had climbed up each crest and down the other side they were eager to plunge their faces in the flow. When they had filled their bellies with water they would rest in a gasping heap for ten minutes until the older man got them up and drove them on again.
Banac walked in silence. All that day he had been looking for an opportunity to talk with Haemel. There was much Haemel was keeping hidden, and he wanted answers to the questions that were on his mind. Finding the opportunity was not as easy as he had hoped, however, with Balor always there, chatting and laughing. He walked a few steps behind them, saving his questions, biding his time. At last nature took over and Balor excused himself behind a clump of bushes some way away, leaving Haemel and Banac to sit alone.
When he was sure Balor was out of earshot Banac turned to Haemel. “How do you know my Father?” he said.
Haemel did not register even a hint of surprise at the sudden interrogation. “That is a bold question,” he said instead. “Why do you ask it?”
“Because you do know him,” Banac said. “More than a quick meeting. I’ve worked it out. You agreed to help us, but you didn’t have to. You could have gone back home any time you wanted. You don’t need to stay with us, and you wouldn’t have if it was just for some oath or promise. I think you know my Father, and you’re coming with us to help him.”
Haemel nodded slowly. “You are quite the thinker,” he said.
“Well, all that and Father said he knew you when I went to rescue him,” Banac admitted. “He told me he would be all right, and that you were more important than any of us, and that I should rescue you and not him.”
“He said this? I am honoured. I expect he was just trying to instill a sense of urgency in you.”
“But you do know each other, don’t you?” Banac persisted.
“Yes,” Haemel nodded. “We have known each other for a few years, your father and I. I would even venture to say we have become friends in that time.”
For some reason this admission sent a chill down Banac’s spine. “So, how do you know each other?” he pressed on. “And how come you turned up near our village? That wasn’t just luck, was it?”
At this Haemel frowned, the first sign of any emotion, and he did not answer the question straight away. “That is a sensitive matter,” he said eventually. “It is not something I feel I should discuss with you on my own.”
“Because there is much to be said, and I do not know how much your father wishes you to know.”
Another shiver went down Banac’s spine, but it was the good sort of shiver: a shiver of excitement.
“So it’s a secret, then?” he said.
Haemel nodded. “It is not widely known,” he said. “I can tell you that I spoke the truth earlier. I came to your lands for a reason: in order to find out what had happened to my brother. That was my main objective. Now it is accomplished, I am at leisure to do as I wish — and what I wish is to help the sons of Beorod in their quest to reclaim him from the hands of those that plan to do him ill. Any more than that, I cannot say. No, do not question me further. Men far crueller and more cunning than you would fail to discover more from me — you must be content with as much as I have given you.”
Banac looked at him sharply, but the beremer’s face was as inscrutable as ever. He decided to leave the matter alone for now. There was something else he wanted to do. He reached up his arm and slipped the torc down again. He had forgotten how heavy it was.
“Here,” he said, handing it over to Haemel. “You should take this back now. I don’t think it’s right for me to keep it any more.”
Haemel looked at the torc for a second, and this time he reached out and took it.
“Thank you,” he said. “Truly you understand the ways of my people. You are indeed your father’s son.”
And before Banac had the time to ask what he meant Balor’s voice broke between them.
“Hey!” he called, and they lifted their heads. Balor had been making his way back from the bushes, but now he was standing still, his head raised, straining as if to hear something.
“What is it?” Banac called.
Balor raised his hand impatiently. “Shush!” he said. “Just listen!”
Banac listened, expecting to hear nothing but the wind; then he heard it. For moment he thought he was imagining things, but it came again, and there was no mistaking it: a bell, ringing out the hour from somewhere very close by, surprisingly loud and clear. He looked at Balor, and Balor looked at him, and they both said the same word at the same time:
* * *
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