The men carried Banac for a long time, jerking him uncomfortably, treating him with as much care as they would a sack of rotten vegetables. Now and again they grew tired and stopped to change him from one set of hands to another, and whenever they did they dumped him on the ground and cursed at how heavy he was. Banac cursed back at them, but his voice was muffled behind the sack that covered his head, and the men just laughed at him and told him to hold his tongue.
Banac was angry. He was angry at himself for getting caught, and furious at his captors. He seethed and boiled with impotent rage, longing for an opportunity to break his bonds and get his sword back. A few moments, that was all he needed. Then he’d show them. He’d teach them not to mess with him. He imagined what would happen once he was free: the revenge, the blood, the snarling vengeance he would wreak on them. Just one chance. Just one …
But no such chance came, and as the minutes went by so Banac’s rage faltered, unable to find an outlet, and eventually it burnt itself out into sullen ashes. He hung silently between his captors, making himself as much of a dead weight as possible, and thought about Balor and Haemel. What were they doing now? Were they still waiting for him? Would they notice that he was not coming back? And what could they do when they did? He was uncomfortably aware that he was being carried into the heart of the sprawling mass of Padascel, in whose streets they could search for days without ever coming near him.
It was hopeless, he realised; and what was worse, it was his own fault. He cursed himself for looking into the archway in the first place. He should have done what Haemel said, looked around for a bit and then gone back. The thought was a bitter one, but it was the truth. Now he was captured by who knew what gang of criminals, with no prospect of getting away. He fumed and worried for a bit, but in the end he was forced to accepted that there was nothing he could do for now, and so he hung in silence and waited to see where he was being taken.
He was carried for what seemed like hours, mostly in a silence broken only by the occasional comment or curse from one of the men. Banac strained his ears for clues to tell him where he was. He knew it was useless — he was in a place he had never been before in his life, so how would listening help him now? — but at the same time he had to cling on to some sliver of hope, so he continued to listen, hoping to hear something worthwhile.
They quickly left the echoing, splashing tunnel and moved into the open air. The men’s feet clapped against stone, at first in an open space and then into a more confined one, streets perhaps. After a while Banac realised that their footseps were the only ones he could hear: they had passed no-one else on their way from the canal. So he was being taken in secret, and there would be no-one to tell the others where he had gone. With this small realisation his spirits drooped, and the next time the men cursed him he did not curse back. He no longer had the energy.
Eventually the men slowed and stopped, and Banac heard a knock on a door. A brief pause, then a muffled voice:
“What is it?”
“Got another one.”
There was the scrape of a bolt being drawn back, then the creak of a door opening. Banac was carried inside and down a flight of steps, into a cold passage where the men’s footsteps echoed. Keys jangled, someone muttered, then a lock clunked and another door opened. He was carried through, and this time he caught the tail-end of a muttered conversation that broke off guiltily as he was dumped on a stone floor.
The bag was whipped from his head, and he blinked and looked around. The first thing he saw was a retreating back and a closing door, and immediately he leapt up at them, but the door slammed in his face and left him pounding on solid wood as the lock turned and the bolt slid home. He smashed his fists against the door, cursing with renewed energy, spitting and challenging his captors to show themselves.
“It’s no good,” a voice said behind him.
He jumped, startled, and turned. The room he was in was some sort of cellar. A smoking torch guttered in an iron bracket on the wall, but most of the light came from a row of windows, set at head-height opposite the door, which looked out at ground level on to a muddy street. Iron bars blocked the windows, and red sunlight streamed between the bars to fall in long gashes across the rush-strewn floor. The light also fell across the room’s other occupants: a huddle of boys, all his age, all alike in build and looks, all studying him with a mixture of suspicion, hope and fear. He counted seven of them.
The boy at the front of the group pointed at the door.
“It’s no good,” he said again. “They won’ open it again, not even to feed us. Not unless it’s to bring someone else in.”
Behind him the other boys relaxed, satisfied that the newcomer did not present any threat. A couple of them sat down in a corner, but they did not resume their conversation. All eyes were fixed on Banac.
“What is this place?” Banac asked the boy who had spoken, but he just shrugged.
“Dunno. They just brung us here, one by one. That’s Hafod and Arath. They was already here when they got me —” he pointed to the two boys sitting against the wall, one of whom raised a hand, “— and that’s Beled and Balen, the twins; and Elad, he don’t talk much; I’m Cafor; and this is Nefen.” The last boy was older than the rest. He glared at Banac as if challenging him to a fight, but Banac knew the type, and held the boy’s gaze for a second before looking away as if not interested. Cafor smiled, and immediately Banac knew he could trust him. He smiled back, some of the tension ebbing away.
“So what do they want?” he said, stepping away from the door.
Cafor shrugged again. “Like I said, we dunno. They not told us nuffin’ since we got here. They just bring someone else in every now and then, and leave us to usselves. Bin a while since anyone was left, though. That’s why we wasn’t sure about you — but I can see you’re one of us, right enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you see it?” Cafor’s smile took on a wicked slant, and he led Banac over to a corner where a trough of dirty water stood. “Look.”
Banac followed him and peered into the trough. At first he could not see anything, then a shadowy form coalesced on the surface of the water, a boy’s face caught by the dying light of the sun, and he realised he was looking at his own reflection. As he watched, his face was joined by another, and he gave a shout and jerked back in shock, and looked disbelievingly up at Cafor, who nodded.
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s what makes you one of us.”
Banac stared at him. Cafor’s face, judging by the reflection he had seen, was almost identical to him; they were so alike they could have been brothers. As he looked round the cellar he saw that the others were the same: all the same stocky build, all the same round face and the same dark eyes. And as he looked a suspicion began to form in his mind.
“I think I know why you’re all here,” he said. Cafor looked puzzled, and the others stared at him with increased interest. “I think it’s because of me. And I think I might know who did it.”
* * *
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