He stood at the edge of the copse and looked down into the valley, his eyes straining in the waning light for any sign of movement, any small figure climbing back up the valley side towards them. But there was nothing, just the odd worker straggling home from the fields.
The sun disappeared, leaving behind the afterglow of a long, hot day. Balor shivered as a breeze gusted up from the valley. Still the light grew dimmer and dimmer, and behind the city walls lights sprang up in countless windows and thin trails of smoke began to rise from a thousand chimneys to slowly mingle in a low-lying blanket of grey smog above the vale. Still Banac did not return.
He looked around. Haemel was crouched by the fire, staring into it with those piercing blue eyes of his. He did not look up, and he did not stir, though he was surely aware of Balor’s eyes on him.
Balor was glad Haemel was there. He was a little scared of him, with his stern ways and curt words; but he had helped them so much already, and had saved their lives more than once — so Balor trusted him. It also helped that he knew what he was doing. Banac was great, and Balor loved him more than anything (except for the times when he hated him more than anything); but since they had left the village Balor had found his trust dwindling. Banac never seemed to know what to do, never seemed to have any kind of plan. At least Haemel appeared confident, even if Balor could not always tell what he was thinking.
The first stars came out, their pin-prick light shining feebly at first, then stronger and stronger as the evening passed and night drew on. A loud bell began to toll from somewhere high in the city, peal after peal rolling out over the valley in solemn tones. It was joined by another, and another, the chimes clashing and jangling discordantly at first, but with developing harmony, until finally they joined in one final ringing chord and fell silent; and in that silence Balor heard the unmistakeable boom of the city gates closing.
That was it. He turned his back on the city and went to crouch by the fire with Haemel.
“What are we going to do?” he said.
Haemel said nothing.
“I said: what are we going to do?”
Haemel stirred. “About what?”
“About Banac. He’s not back yet.”
“Yes. I know.”
Haemel did not supply any further opinion, and Balor fidgeted restlessly.
“Something’s happened to him,” he said. “Something bad. I know it. Banac wouldn’t leave me like that.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Again, Haemel was infuriatingly terse. Balor felt his hackles rise. He bit his lip.
“So what are we going to do?”
Only then did Haemel raise his head, and there was a flash of impatience in his eyes.
“If you’ll let me think for a moment I’ll tell you,” he said, and looked back into the fire. Balor subsided, chastised.
He waited, while the warmth left the air and the chill of night gradually drew on. Haemel did not move. He was like a statue. His thin back rose and fell slightly with each breath, but this was the only sign of life.
Eventually he stirred and lifted his head.
“You’re right,” he said. “Something has happened to Banac. We must go down to the city ourselves and see what we can find.”
“I thought it wasn’t safe for you?” said Balor.
Haemel looked at him, but Balor could not tell if he was moved by the display of concern or just curious as to why it had been shown.
“No. It is not safe,” Haemel agreed. “But there is a way to make it less dangerous. It would not have worked during daylight, and there are no guarantees it will work even now. But there is nothing else we can do.”
He rose and started kicking over the fire.
“So what are you going to do?” Balor asked.
“I will disguise myself.”
“Where there are cities there are the poor,” Haemel explained, “and where there are the poor there are the sick, and where there are the sick you will not look far to find the untouchables: those men whose bodies have been so ravaged they will not even dare show their flesh, who must live apart from other men for fear of spreading their sickness. If I disguise myself as one of these, I may hope to pass unnoticed.”
Haemel did not wait for Balor to agree, and Balor did not question him. Any plan seemed like a good plan to him. He waited patiently while Haemel finished kicking over the fire, plunging them into darkness, and when it was time he followed him out of the copse and down the hill without protest.
* * *
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