When Banac awoke it was already late morning, and sunlight was streaming through the barred windows. He stirred restlessly, his body aching from one end to the other. He had slept poorly, the night filled with dark images that kept him from rest and clung to him even now like the last remnants of a foul mist. He remembered waking once, filled with such a dread and horror that he felt like he was about to die; and though the feeling had passed, the memory of it stayed with him even now. He shuddered, and told himself it was just a dream.
He sat up, wincing as pain blossomed in his nose and leg, both of which were still sore from yesterday’s fight. The other boys were already up, scattered here and there around the cellar, talking in soft voices in the early morning hush. Condensation glistened on the walls and the rushes that carpeted the stone floor. The air felt thick, heavy with the weight of anticipation.
Distant bells rang out from somewhere in the city, pealing notes that jangled discordantly then fell away as a lone bell sounded four long tolls.
Cafor looked up from his conversation with Arath and saw Banac was awake.
“Good morning,” he said, coming over to crouch down by him. “Sleep well?”
“No.” Banac rubbed the back of his neck. “So they haven’t come back yet?”
Cafor shook his head.
“Will they bring us food?”
“Judging by yesterday?” Cafor shook his head again. “I doubt it. We can only hope they find some other poor soul to drag down here.”
“Well, whatever happens we’d better be ready.”
“We were just waiting for you.”
Banac stood up and watched as Cafor went round to the other boys, speaking to them one by one. He saw Hafod and Elad shaking their heads, and when Cafor pressed them they curled themselves up and refused to answer him, and in the end Cafor left them to themselves. The other boys were more willing, but out of all of them it was Arath who was the most cheerful, predicting that they would be away from the cellar in time for lunch. Though the rest of them did not believe him they kept their doubts to themselves, recognising hope when they saw it.
They took up their places again, conscious that their captors could return at any time, and settled down to wait.
The morning passed by agonizingly slowly. Seconds turned into minutes, and minutes turned into hours, and one by one the boys’ alertness waned into silent boredom. The unspoken consensus was that, for whatever reason, they had been left down here to sweat. Nefen was the first to slouch off, muttering something about stupid plans. Only Banac remained hopeful, keeping his station with his eyes fixed on the door.
As he waited he thought of Balor, and wondered where he could be. He was not worried — Haemel was sure to take care of him — but he hoped Balor was not worrying about him too much. He just needed to get out of this cellar, and then he would be able to think about finding them again, and then Father; and then they would all go home.
He did not think too much about why he had been brought to the cellar. Clearly the Scholar had hoped to catch him and Balor on the off-chance that they had come to the city, but Banac could not imagine why. His only thought was that the Scholar had hoped to get to Haemel through them — but Haemel was too clever for that. Haemel would never be caught.
The bolt on the cellar door scraped back, breaking into his thoughts. Before any of them had a chance to react the door was open and someone was entering the room. Banac leapt up with a yell, startling the man, who stopped in the act of opening the door; then the twins sprang into action and jumped on him, and in the space of a few seconds all hell broke loose.
Banac hardly knew what happened next. There was a confusion of noise and movement, shouts and screams mingling in the confined space and almost deafening him. He ran at the door, but it was blocked by more men, men with swords; and though they had been startled they quickly regained their wits and pressed into the room, knocking him to the floor with rough hands. Banac heard a scream and saw blood spurt up the wall in a startling gash of red, then one of the twins rose out of the chaos with a bloody sword in his hand, his eyes afire and his face full of wild exultation. He leapt over a flailing body and swung at the man behind; the man parried the blow and swung one of his own, and more blood splashed on the rushes as the twin staggered and tumbled, exultation turning to horror in a second as his life was slashed from him; then the element of surprise was gone, and with a surge of despair Banac saw they had lost. All around him the boys were surrendering. The surviving twin was lying prostrate over his brother’s body, howling and crying; Arath was already overpowered, struggling half-heartedly in a burly man’s grip; Cafor was white-faced and gasping, his right arm hanging uselessly as he sagged against the wall; and Hafod and Elad were clinging to each other and emitting low whimpers of terror. Only Nefen still fought, but as more men entered the room it was plain that he was hopelessly outnumbered, and in the end a fist to his head made him crumple to the floor, and the fight was over.
Banac looked around, hardly able to believe what was happening. The boys were being shoved against the wall, the men snarling and swearing with such venom that they were cowed and did not resist. Not even the remaining twin put up a fight. He was limp as a rag as the men lifted him from his brother’s body and pushed him to the wall; his face was blank, his eyes empty as though a light in them had been extinguished. Looking at him, and looking down at his brother lying twisted and bloody in the straw, Banac suddenly felt a great terror well up inside him. It was a physical sensation, so powerful it made him weak. His legs buckled, nausea rose up from the pit of his stomach, and he doubled over and retched against the wall again and again, his starving stomach heaving uselessly at the horror of it all.
They huddled against the wall in terrified silence, all resistance beaten out of them. Nefen still glowered at his foes, but even he dared not raise a fist in anger. The surprise was gone, and there was nothing more they could do.
A long whistle of surprise sounded from the doorway. “Iescwd’s beard! What happened here? A rebellion, was it?”
Banac looked up, a terrible sinking sensation in his stomach as he recognised the speaker: Aedwyc, son of Adwyc, his cunning eyes wide as he surveyed the carnage in the cellar, his thin face drawn in a look of surprise.
Aedwyc shook his head. “Eight lads did this to you, did they?”
“They jumped us, is what they did,” one of the men growled sullenly. He was bleeding from a cut above his eye.
But Aedwyc was not listening. He had seen the slumped form of the dead twin lying on the ground, and he rounded on the men with sudden venom.
“What’s this?” he spat. “Look! You killed one of them. You idiots!”
“Not much we could do, was there?” the spokesman retorted. “Came at us with a blade, didn’t ‘e?”
Aedwyc prodded the body with the toe of his boot, careful not to get any blood on it. “You’d better hope it’s not him,” he said. “Iefor won’t be pleased if it is.”
At the mention of that name a reverent hush came over the men, and they all looked at Aedwyc with fear in their faces.
“He’s coming here?” one of them quavered.
“He’s here already,” a new voice said from the doorway; a voice Banac knew well, a voice he hated, a voice whose owner he wished he could meet with nothing but a sword between them. The men backed away as the Scholar stepped into the room, looking around disdainfully. He picked up the hem of his robe to keep it from dragging on the floor, and sniffed daintily in the crowded, sweaty atmosphere.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said. “Stand them up.”
The men hurried to obey, grabbing the boys’ heads by the hair and yanking them back so that their faces were clearly visible, ignoring Cafor’s cry of pain and the tears from Hafod and Elad. The Scholar’s eyes darted over the line-up, and Banac felt a stabbing pain in his belly as they came to rest on him almost immediately.
“That’s him,” the Scholar said shortly. “Bring him. Kill the others.”
For a moment Banac did not register the words. Then two men darted forward and seized his hands, and the roughness of their grip jerked him to realisation.
“No!” he shouted, struggling against the strong hands that tugged him away from the wall. The other boys were silent, numb with shock, unable to believe what they had heard, and it was only as Banac was dragged from the cellar that they began to shout in terror, their cries building to a hideous babbling crescendo; then the door slammed behind him, and a moment later the cries were cut off abruptly, and the silence that followed was even worse.
Banac was trembling all over as the men hauled him to the next room and flung him down. He did not get up. He could not. All he could do was lie on the floor in a shivering heap of fear.
Time passed, but he did not know how much. He kept hearing screams in his head, again and again; and though he pressed his hands tight against his ears he could not shut them out.
The door opened, then closed. Banac was aware of someone in the room with him, but he did not look up. He could not. He lay and looked at the floor, and tried to forget the screams still echoing in his head.
“Banac.” The voice came as if from far away. It was soft and consoling, like one friend comforting another, and it made him look up. The Scholar was crouched beside him, his bearded face full of pity and understanding. “There,” he said quietly. “I know, Banac. I know. It’s been hard, hasn’t it?”
Banac struggled to rise. “What …?” he managed to say, but immediately the Scholar shushed him.
“Quiet now,” he said. “It’s been a hard few days. You need to rest and get your strength back, because in a minute it’s going to get a lot, lot worse.”
In answer to his barely-formed question the door opened again and Aedwyc entered. A faint smile played over his lips, and when he was sure Banac was looking at him he closed one eye in a slow wink.
“Now,” the Scholar said, all traces of kindness leaving his voice. He stood up, gathering his robes about him in a businesslike manner. “We have such a lot to talk about, you and I. I know you’re an intelligent lad, Banac. You were always one of my favourite students, when you bothered to attend — quick-witted, sharp, perceptive. In a way I suppose much of what the others learned was wasted on you. Maybe I was the only one who saw how much potential you had, how far it would have been possible for you to go in life given the right opportunities — and yet I still managed to underestimate you!”
Banac paid little attention. His eyes were fixed on Aedwyc, who stood leaning against the wall by the door. He was playing with his beard, pulling the glistening wisps of hair down so that they tugged at his chin. His hands were shiny with a residue of oil, and he rubbed his fingertips together and touched them to his nose. And all the time he stared at Banac, and Banac stared at him.
The Scholar was still speaking: “You have made my life difficult these past few days, Banac. You have been a nuisance to me. I wish I had guessed earlier just how much of a nuisance, and maybe we could have avoided all of this … unpleasantness. But here we are, and things that have happened cannot be changed.” He glanced at Banac and saw his distracted expression. “Are you all right?” he asked, without a hint of concern. “Perhaps you’re worrying about your brother?”
The mention of Balor was enough to tear Banac’s eyes away from Aedwyc. He stared up at the Scholar. “What do you mean?” he said. “Where’s Balor?” He struggled to raise himself off the floor as a worm of fear began burrowing its way through his belly. “Where is he?”
The Scholar laughed. “He’s here Banac. And your … friend, is it? Companion? Ally for a time? The beremer …” — he spat — “… and little Balor. Yes, they are quite safe. I have them.”
The fear inside Banac turned to rage. “Where are they?” he demanded. He raised himself up on all fours, and Aedwyc made a move towards him, but the Scholar put out a hand and stared at Banac as he crouched like an animal on the stone floor.
“They’re safe,” he said. “Safe enough. My men found them last night, trying to break into the city. I have them accommodated at a secure location, and if you’re a very good boy and answer all my questions I might just decide not to hurt them in horrible and frankly unimaginable ways. Is that understood?”
And as Banac looked at him, and saw the coldness in his eyes, and heard again the echo of the screams from the silent room next door, he felt sick to his stomach. Something had gone terribly wrong somewhere along the way. The adventure had turned into a nightmare. He saw it now, so clearly he could not believe he had been so blind. All along he had assumed it would turn out like it did in the stories. Even after the soldiers had come to the village, a part of him had thought it would all turn out all right — they would have some adventures, rescue Father, and be back in time for supper. And after every shock, every disappointment, there had been a part of him that still felt that way.
But no more. Now, at last, the veil had fallen away, and Banac saw the situation for what it was. Everything had turned out horribly. Balor was captured somewhere, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had led them both into events that were too big for them to understand, and now here he was, captured himself, and he could see no way out.
There was still that part of him that needed to rescue Father; but now it looked out with unclouded eyes, and Banac knew without a doubt what he needed to do. He needed to get help, grown-up help. The situation was too desperate now for him to think he could deal with it on his own.
“Is that understood?” the Scholar repeated sharply. Banac nodded dumbly, his mind racing as he struggled to see some way out. The Scholar smiled. “Good,” he said. “Now, I’m sure you remember my friend Aedwyc here. He truly is a remarkable find — I’m convinced the man has no conscience whatsoever. In a moment I am going to ask you some questions. If I don’t like the answers I’m going to let Aedwyc spend some time with you, and he is going to hurt you, Banac. And I’m sure he will enjoy it.”
He turned and looked at Aedwyc, who lounged against one wall and continued to pull at his beard.
“Now then,” the Scholar said, his voice soft again as he turned back to Banac. “Tell me about Berethel.”
It was the last question Banac had been expecting. He did not even recognise the name. “Who’s Berethel?” he said. He looked around the cell, looking for a way to escape, but there was none.
The Scholar chuckled. “You know who Berethel is,” he said. “Your friend in high places. What can you tell me about him?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. He saved your life, Banac. From Aedwyc here. You remember, don’t you?”
Banac remembered. The day on the beach, the knife against his cheek, the stern commanding voice that had stopped it …
“You mean the man in black?” he said.
“A queer name for him, but yes.” The Scholar nodded. “Since you two are such good friends you can tell me all about him.”
“I don’t know anything,” Banac protested. “I only met him that once. He doesn’t even know my name. He’s a prince!”
The Scholar was tutting, shaking his head. Banac tried desperately to think of something he could say to convince him. This was ridiculous. How could he know anything about a prince of Padascel? The questions made no sense.
“Look,” he said. “How could I know him? I’m a village boy. He’s a prince. I don’t know him. I don’t know anything.”
The Scholar sighed. “I can see you’re going to be difficult,” he said. He turned and nodded to Aedwyc, who pushed himself away from the wall with an expression of glee spreading across his trimmed, oiled face. An ice-cold finger ran down Banac’s spine and buried itself in his bowels, and he backed away as Aedwyc approached him, and came up against the cold stone wall.
“Look …” he began, but the Scholar cut him off.
“Oh, it’s no good trying to negotiate,” he said. “No, no excuses, no deals — Aedwyc will hurt you a little first, and we shall see how it loosens your tongue, eh?”
A knife sprang from nowhere into Aedwyc’s hand, the same knife he had used on Banac in the village. At the sight of the knife the memory of how it had felt came flooding back to Banac: the cold steel, the paralysed horror, the sharp edge pressing against his cheek. He opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out this time. They had all run out. There was nothing else he could say. Aedwyc was going to hurt him, and this time there would be no-one to stop him.
Aedwyc paused to test the edge of the knife, but his eyes never left Banac’s. He took another step forwards, his smile widening a little as he saw the terror in Banac’s eyes. His lips glistened. His tongue shot out, startlingly red. He breathed deeply, stalking forwards like a predator, his free hand reaching out, the knife raised …
There was a knock on the cellar door.
Aedwyc stopped with his hand in the air. He looked round at the Scholar, and the Scholar frowned. The knock came again.
“What is it?” the Scholar barked. “I expressly said we were not to be disturbed!”
A muffled voice came from the other side of the door. “There’s a visitor for Iefor. He says it can’t wait.”
Banac looked between the Scholar and Aedwyc, holding his breath.
“It can wait!” The Scholar’s face was red with fury.
“Beg pardon, but the gentleman doesn’t seem to think so. Says it’s a family matter.”
“I have no—!” the Scholar began to reply; then he bit his words off in mid-sentence, and a flicker of doubt passed across his face. “What is this visitor’s name?” he asked after a pause.
“The gentleman didn’t give his name or show his face. But he asked for you by name. He’s waiting in his carriage now. A black carriage. He said it can’t wait.”
“Yes, yes! I heard!”
The Scholar turned and looked at Banac for a moment, then made an animal sound in his throat and beckoned to Aedwyc.
“Come,” he said. “This will have to wait.”
Aedwyc twisted his lip in annoyance, but he obeyed, and followed his master out of the room. Before he closed the door he paused and looked back at Banac. Slowly and deliberately, he put out his tongue and ran it all around his lips. Then he flashed a white smile, as if to say, This isn’t over, and was gone.
It took a moment for Banac to realize he was alone. He let out the breath he had been holding and sagged against the wall, shaking from head to foot. There were sounds in the street outside — in the midst of what was happening he had not noticed them, but now they were loud in the sudden silence: the snorting of horses, the jingling of harnesses. A door opened and closed, then footsteps approached down the street.
“My lord.” To his surprise the Scholar’s voice came from directly outside the window, low and wheedling. “I did not expect such a visit.”
Banac sat upright and began to pay attention. The Scholar had not realised where he was. He had forgotten that Banac could hear every word. Banac sat still and listened.
“Nor should you have.” The voice that answered was strangely familiar. It reminded him of the prince Berethel’s, but as he listened he could tell it was not him — this voice was higher, younger than Berethel’s had been. The accent was smooth and royal, but somehow the words did not have the same weight or authority, though there was enormous confidence in them, as though the speaker was used to getting his own way and had never known otherwise.
Banac stirred himself. Whatever was going on outside was important; he should try to see what it was. Creeping as quietly as he could over to the window, he craned his head to look out.
A black coach filled the narrow street, drawn by a team of black horses bridled with silver. The coach door was open, and the Scholar was bent low beside it, his eyes cast downwards respectfully. Banac tried to peer into the coach, but it was too dark. All he could see was the leg and gloved hand of a single occupant — if there were others, they were concealed in the shadows.
“No, of course,” the Scholar was saying, bowing even lower so that his beard brushed the road. “To what do I owe such an honour, my lord?”
“Business,” replied the figure inside the coach. “I have called a gathering tonight — you will contact our brothers and inform them.”
“Very well, my lord. Where is the meeting to be held?”
“In the sanctum below the warehouse on the Drover’s Street, in the meat district. We will start at the sixth evening bell.”
“And what is the purpose of the meeting, my lord?”
“That is none of your business. Follow your orders. That is all.”
There was a fraction of a second’s pause. “Yes, my lord.”
The masked man reached out to close the carriage door.
“And what of Beorod’s son?” The Scholar called. “I have him inside with me now. Do you wish me to question him?”
“For what?” The masked man laughed, but there was no humour in the sound. “He is a child, Iefor. What would he know? No, we have other business to attend to. I cannot have you spending your time with little boys. Iescwd knows you have wasted enough of it already. Send him home. If he had any notions of mounting a rescue for his father he will be sorely disappointed — that man is in a prison from which no-one can free him.”
“Of course, my lord.”
“Good. Remember your instructions. The sanctum in the meat district, at the sixth evening bell. Do not be late. Blessings rest with you, brother.” The figure kissed his hand and extended it towards the Scholar, who took it and touched it to his forehead.
“Blessings rest with you, brother,” he muttered.
The masked man returned to the darkness of the coach and swung the door closed with a sharp bang. At that signal the driver picked up the reins again and snapped them at the horses, urging them onwards, and the coach rumbled down the narrow street and out of sight.
When the coach had gone Banac stepped away from the window. His mind was whirling, a sudden storm of thoughts all tumbling over each other. Some joined together, like pieces of a great puzzle; others jarred and conflicted, creating more confusion.
But one thought rose above them all: Balor had been captured, and Haemel with him, and there was nothing he could do to help them. He squeezed his eyes together, furious at himself, scared for Balor, and so alone it made him hurt. He was just one boy, and more than ever he needed help.
Then he remembered what the Scholar had said, and an idea began to form in his mind.
Banac did not know how long he waited, his heart thumping, wondering what was to become of him. The figure had told the Scholar to let him go, but whether the Scholar could be trusted to follow orders was far from certain.
When the door opened again it took him by surprise, making him jump. But instead of the Scholar two men in guard’s uniform entered the room. One of them held a massive ring of keys.
“Out,” he said, pointing to the cellar door.
Banac hesitated, wondering if it was some kind of trick. The guard tutted impatiently and reached in, grabbing Banac’s shirt and dragging him out.
“I said out,” he said. “We haven’t got all day to hang around. Go on. Get out of here.”
Banac did not need telling twice. He hurried over to the cellar door and scrambled up the wooden stairs beyond with the guards close behind.
At the top of the stairs was a long corridor. The guards escorted him down it to a large room where another man lounged behind a battered desk and daylight spilled through an open door.
“Prisoner discharge,” one of the guards said to his colleague at the desk. The man did not look up, but raised a hand in acknowledgement as the guards hustled Banac roughly out of the door and into the street. Without another word the door slammed shut behind him, and again he was alone, blinking in the harsh afternoon light
Banac did not stop to question what had happened — for all he knew the Scholar might change his mind. The first thought on his mind was to get away. He picked a direction at random and started walking.
As he walked he turned over the germ of an idea that had started to form in his mind. He needed help, and with the others captured somewhere there was only one person in the whole of the city from whom he had even an outside chance of getting it. The prince Berethel had come to Banac’s aid on the day they had taken Father; maybe he would help him again.
It was foolish, of course, to think that someone as high up as a prince would even consider talking to him; but this was different. He had leverage: something to bargain with, something he was sure Berethel would be interested in.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he did not notice the black liveried coach and horses standing in a nearby street, nor how the curtain twitched and the eyes within watched him go.
* * *
The Scholar sat alone in his office, his fingers steepled and his eyes closed. He was deep in thought, contemplating everything that had happened those past few days: his fall from grace, the master’s displeasure, and now this messy business with the fisherman and his sons. He sighed. Never mind. Things were taking a turn. There was still time to improve his situation.
A knock came at the door. He glanced up in irritation.
“Who is it?”
In reply the door opened and the masked man swept in, brushing aside the one who had intended to introduce him. The Scholar jumped from his chair, and the man threw himself down and waved a lazy hand at the waiting servant.
“Leave us,” the Scholar said, closing the door hurriedly. He turned to the masked man. “Is it well, my lord?”
The masked man nodded. “It is well. You play a good part, Iefor. The boy will seek out Berethel and pass him the information. They will chase shadows for a while and give up when they find nothing. We shall proceed tonight without interruption.”
The Scholar bobbed, licking his lips nervously. “And the beremer?”
“It is safe,” the masked man said. “We will meet at the appointed time, in the appointed place. Your rituals will not be interrupted.”
Your rituals, the Scholar noted silently. No longer ‘ours,’ but ‘yours’. It was yet another symptom of the change that had come over his master in the past few months, an indication of a growing restlessness. He would have to be careful, maybe find some other piece of lore to feed him. He knew his master well, and he knew by now that he was easily distracted. It took care and patience to keep him on the right track.
He showed nothing of what he was thinking. Instead, he bowed low.
“It shall be as my lord wishes,” he said, and they went on to speak of other things.