When Father emerged from the underground chamber he was exhausted, as if he had just run a ten-mile race. The pressure and cloying atmosphere had taken their toll, and now he wanted nothing more than to return to his bed and lose himself in sleep. A guard waited to escort him back to his rooms, but he hardly noticed the return journey: he was too busy thinking about everything he had seen in the cavern, and what it all meant.
He did not despair, not yet. The masked man had been lucky so far, and though he had threatened, his plans for Father were half-formed and consisted of threats and nothing more. He had not expected to come across him here; he was biding his time until he could think what to do with him.
Again Father cursed the Scholar. It was only through his half-baked attempt at revenge that Father was here at all. But he could not lay all the blame at Iefor’s feet. He had suspected for a long time that it was Iefor who was behind recent events in the village, and yet he had baited him before the Elder in the long-hall. It would have been wiser to keep his mouth shut and swallowed his pride, and then his family would have been kept safe.
But then he would not have had this opportunity. And it was an opportunity — a great one, the kind that came along once in a lifetime. He would be taking a dreadful risk by seizing it, and not just to him, but for his wife and boys also. The only question was whether the risk was worth what he would gain through it.
When they arrived at his rooms he thanked the guard and ducked quickly inside. He did not have time for conversation. He had made up his mind. An idea was forming in his head, and he wanted to enact it before anyone noticed what he was doing.
But when he had shut the door he did not immediately change his clothes as he had been meaning to. A silver tray was lying on the table near the window, with a silver box and a heavy sealed envelope resting on it. Father eyed the box warily, but he did not touch it. There was no time for that now. Instead he opened the envelope. Inside was a heavy ring set with a round metal seal, and two sheets of parchment. The first sheet was an official letter, signed by Aedor and sealed with the same seal borne by the ring, and it instructed any who read it to afford the bearer such passage or assistance as he might require.
The second sheet was plainer, and read simply:
There will be a meeting of our brethren tonight when the evening bell strikes six. Come to the holy place by yourself. If any man questions you, use the letter and the ring.
Father folded up the letter slowly and tapped it against his chin. Yes, it might work. He could kill two birds with one stone. It would be risky, but if it succeeded … He glanced out of the window. It was still light outside, maybe mid-afternoon. That gave him about six hours before this meeting began. Plenty of time, he decided.
Leaving the silver box untouched he ducked into the next room to find the plainest clothes he could. Ten minutes later he pocketed the letter and the ring and slipped silently out of the apartment.
Father’s pounded as he crept down the hallways of the palace, the ring on his finger and the letter clutched like a weapon in his fist. Neither Aedor nor the masked man had expressly forbidden him to leave his rooms, but neither had they given him permission to do what he was doing now. He suspected that if he was discovered things would not go well for him, and so he moved cautiously.
The building was surprisingly empty. Now and again he spied the scuttling form of a servant disappearing out of sight at his approach, but these were the only signs of life around him. Not that it mattered — he preferred it this way, for it meant he could go about his business undisturbed.
He made his way down to the lower levels, through silent galleries and down wide staircases. Gradually the silence became textured by the distant hubbub of voices, and soon he emerged in the grand entrance hall of the palace. It was an enormous room, flanked by tall pillars and decorated with the standards of the twelve Barons of Padascel, six on each wall, and the king’s standard presiding over them all. There were more people here, a crowd of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting standing about and talking in low voices. One or two looked up when Father entered, and his heart skipped a beat as he anticipated a challenge, or at least a protest at his presence; but the eyes that scanned him were uninterested, and they quickly turned away, leaving him was free to move between them towards the palace entrance.
He kept his head down as he crossed the hall, but nevertheless he could not help overhearing the discussions going on around him. He was half-way to the doors when he head a word that made him slow down and pay attention:
“A beremer? Here, in the city?”
“That’s what I hear. It killed ten men, they say, down in the sewers.”
Someone brayed with laughter. “Just the place for it, then!”
“But I thought such a thing was impossible,” one of the ladies simpered. “Surely the guards would hunt it down and kill it?”
“I’m sure they will, my dear lady. It’s only a matter of time — though they are devilishly difficult to hunt, I’ve heard. Worse than deer.”
“I’d rather have a set of antlers up on my wall than the head of one of those ugly brutes!” someone supplied, and the rest of the group roared with laughter as if this was the funniest thing they had heard all year.
Father moved away, disgusted by their callous words; and yet at the same time he was worried. It had to be Haemel they were talking about — but why was he here at all? Why had Banac not sent him on his way home? Was it possible Haemel had taken it into his head to mount a rescue attempt? He hoped not, for it could seriously interfere with his plan. That was Haemel all over: half the sense and twice the muscle of any normal man. But there was nothing he could do about it now. He would have to hope the city guards kept Haemel busy enough that he could not interfere.
The sentries on the door paid Father no attention — they were supposed to stop people from getting in, not getting out — and once he was past them he found himself out in the fresh air. He stopped for a moment and took in deep breaths, relieved to be out of the confines of the palace. Then he looked around him, taking in the sight that was at once so familiar and yet so new, as if it had been dredged up from the depths of his memory: at the bottom of the steps that led down from the palace was the broad circular plaza carpeted with neatly-cropped grass; the same tall white buildings surrounded it, and the same richly-dressed courtiers milled around. The buildings had not changed much: one or two had been cleaned up, touches of whitewash applied here and there; new trees had been planted, and new benches were scattered about — but otherwise all was as it had been the last time he had stood here, thirteen years ago.
Nostalgia tugged at him. Everything had seemed so simple then, so easy to fix, the world a place to be managed and controlled, the idea of enemies a far-off and unimportant one. He wished it could be so again.
He turned and looked up at the palace behind him, craning his neck to take in its soaring spires and towers. It was beautiful, he admitted to himself: a thing of wonder, all white stone and marble and even a few panes of extravagantly expensive coloured glass. But that was only the outside. The inside was rotten and corrupt, filled with deceit and violence, much like the men who had built it and those who inhabited it now. He would never be able to admire it, nor any part of the city it presided over. He knew too much of its true nature.
He descended the wide stone steps to the plaza, then turned right towards the building that abutted the palace: an imposing facade of white stone with a crest emblazoned over the door and carved lettering proclaiming it to be the Royal College and Hall of Learning. As he approached the college more memories began to stream back to him, sending a shiver down his spine. But he did not have time for those thoughts, so he pushed them aside. There were other, more pressing matters to be dealt with.
He did not take the front steps up to the main entrance, but turned down the narrow alleyway between the college and the palace. He remembered the route well, having taken it many times in his youth, in the late hours when the college doors were locked and there was no other way for drunk students to find their way back to their rooms. He trod it quietly now, checking to make sure no-one had seen him, and when he came to the place in the wall where he knew there were loose stones he scrambled up and over with only slightly more effort than it had taken him thirteen years ago.
He landed in a muddy yard half-filled with broken barrels and sacks of rope and nails. In the far corner a sow looked up at the sound of his landing then flopped back down in disinterest. There was no-one else about.
The back door to the college was the same one he remembered, and — mercifully — it was still unlocked. Clearly the nocturnal habits of students had not changed much since his time. He teased it open gingerly, but the hinges did not give out so much as a whisper (again, thanks to the enterprising minds of young men with a taste for alcohol and out-of-hours excursions) and a moment later he had slipped inside.
The rest of the journey was easier. The serving staff assumed that anyone already inside the walls of the college must naturally have a reason to be there, and so they ignored him as he padded down corridors and up staircases, making his way to the upper levels of the building. But long years had erased parts of his memory, and after ten minutes wandering lost along forgotten corridors he took the risk of asking a passing student for more directions. The lad was more than helpful and even offered to show him the way, leading him higher and higher until at last they arrived at a heavy wooden door with an iron door-knocker, which the student took and slammed down twice.
“What?” a deep voice boomed from within. “Speak up, you worm! Does no-one have any respect for privacy these days?”
The student gave Father an amused smirk, then turned and left him to answer for himself. Father did not bother to speak, but instead pushed the door open and stepped inside.
To say the room he entered was cluttered would have been an understatement; to say it was a filthy rat’s-nest would have been closer to the truth. Piles and piles and yet more piles of papers, books and odd items teetered precariously on every available surface, some supported only by the pile next to them and others apparently defying the laws of reason in their attempt to stay upright. In the middle of the general chaos an enormous man sat slumped in a rickety chair, a dirty pipe gripped between his teeth and his bare feet propped up on a nearby table. The remains of countless meals littered the floor about him, and the air stank of mould and stale pipe-smoke, and the lingering odour of generations of dead mice concealed beneath the floor-boards.
The man coughed and heaved himself into a more comfortable position. He was not fat — indeed, in his youth he had been powerfully muscled — but the years had taken hold of him and softened his flesh so that it no longer held the definition it had once boasted. A dirty brown robe was draped over him, slipping down his raised legs and exposing their hairy flesh to the light; his short grey hair ran down his cheeks and across his chin in three-day-old stubble; his white, milky eyes stared sightlessly ahead, flicking this way and that of their own accord but seeing nothing.
“Who is it, eh?” he growled. “If it’s you youngsters come to stare at an old man again I’ll give you something you won’t forget in a hurry! Just you come over here and feel what an old man’s fist can do!”
He swung wildly, jutting out his chin and probing the air with his nose as if to smell his imagined assailants. Despite his best efforts Father could not help the snort of laughter that escaped him, and at that small sound the man turned to face him directly, his blind eyes wide and staring.
“Hah!” he spat. “I see you now, you reprobate! You wait until I’m up, and I’ll give you a hiding you’ll never forget!”
He struggled to rise, but only succeeded in slipping dangerously low in his seat. Father rushed forwards to help him, and suddenly the man’s fist shot out and smashed into the side of his face, sending him sprawling on the floor. The blow was followed by a crow of triumph.
“There, you little wastrel!” he hooted. “That’ll teach you, eh? Now get out!”
“Wait! Wait!” Father stood up, nursing his chin and smiling through the pain. “Won’t you hear the news a wastrel has to bring an old man in his dotage?”
At the sound of his voice a change came over the man as suddenly as a cloud passes before the sun. The snarl vanished from his face, and he sat forward in his chair, his blind eyes questing around the room.
“Who’s that?” he said, his voice soft where it had been rough, the voice of a man who cannot believe what he is hearing. “I recognise the voice, but it cannot be who I think it is. That man is dead, and the dead do not speak. Unless the end is come, and the dead are raised? Is it you, Lord? Have you come for me at last?”
“Be quiet, Calwyd,” Father said. “You’re worse at religion than I remember if you can’t tell the difference between your God and an old friend.”
“Beorod?” The man named Calwyd spoke hesitantly, disbelievingly. “It can’t be! Come here and let me see you!”
Father came close and lowered his face so that Calwyd’s searching hands could find it. He spent some minutes tracing Father’s features, then his own face split into a great smile.
“Beorod,” he breathed. “My friend. So you are not dead.”
“There’s time enough yet for that,” Father said. “And little enough to waste. I can’t stay long.”
“Why not? You’re not in trouble, are you?”
“More than you know.”
Calwyd sighed, but it was a happy sigh. “By Iescwd’s beard, I’ve missed you. Come, you must drink with me.”
He made as if to stand, but Father pushed him back down gently. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There really is no time. If I’m missed it could be disastrous.”
“So you really are in trouble?”
“As I said, more than you know.”
Calwyd sniffed. “I can guess,” he said. “Let me see … You have the smell of perfume on you, and if there’s any man in this city less inclined to wear perfume I’ve yet to hear of him. That means you’re wearing it out of necessity, so you’re either in love again or you’ve been called to the house of someone of importance and bathed in their tub.” He sniffed. “Cale-fir oil!” he declared. “Expensive stuff, so it’s not for the benefit of a woman. Someone important, and rich. Very rich.” He reached out and fingered Father’s shirt. “New cloth. Clean. Someone else’s clothes. Very fine indeed, but you’ve made the effort to wear the lowliest garment in their wardrobe — so a man whose poorest cut of cloth would shame the garments of some of the wealthiest merchants I know. Incredibly rich.” He sniffed again. “I don’t smell sweat on you. You’ve not walked far to get here. In fact,” another sniff, “aside from the perfume you smell of nothing but damp and apple-blossom, which means the only place you’ve walked today is in the plaza outside these doors; and you have the overpowering stench of snobbery about you, which means you’ve come from the Palace. So you’re staying at the Palace, and you say you’re in trouble … I’m guessing you’re an unwilling guest. But what kind of trouble could you be in with the Palace, Beorod? You’re making me nervous already, and you’ve hardly said a word.”
“And I won’t say another,” Father replied, smiling. “You’ve guessed too much without them.”
“So I’m right?” Calwyd’s lip twisted. “You need to be careful, old friend. There’s nothing but bad news from the Palace these days.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Calwyd sighed heavily. “It’s good to hear your voice again,” he admitted, “but trouble follows you like bees after honey, Beorod. It always has done.”
“I’ve done my utmost to keep away from trouble. I left this city to keep away from trouble.”
“And yet here you are, back again.”
Silence fell between them. Calwyd did not move, but sat staring into space. Father fancied he was listening to the sound of his breathing.
“Is the gravestone still there?” Father asked eventually. “I heard you managed to have them interred in the crypt.”
Calwyd nodded. “Have you had a chance to visit them yet?”
“No. Not yet. Maybe later.” Father forced himself to get back to the reason he had visited Calwyd in the first place. “Do you have ink?” he said.
It was a clumsy way to change the subject, but Calwyd let it go. He gestured to the mess. “If you can find some, I dare say I do. And quills, if you look hard enough. Use any scrap of parchment you can find. They’re all useless, anyway. Don’t know why I keep them.”
“For sentiment?” Father suggested, rummaging through the heaps to find a bottle of half-decent ink, a grubby quill, and a scrap of parchment to write on.
Calwyd snorted. “I never had time for sentiment. Sentiment’s for women and poets. And lovers,” he added pointedly. “But you should know all about that.”
“I’d hardly call myself a lover,” Father said. He scribbled a hasty note, blew the ink dry, then folded it and pressed it into Calwyd’s hand. “I was in love, once, a very long time ago, and the woman I chose is the one I love still, despite her upbringing. Now I need a favour of you, friend.”
Calwyd rolled his eyes in resignation. “Name it.”
“You must make sure this note reaches the hand of the prince Berethel today. It is an urgent message.”
“What does it say?”
“If I didn’t want it to stay a secret I wouldn’t have come to a blind man.”
“And it’s to the prince?” Calwyd fingered the note. “Are you sure, Beorod? If you’re in trouble, going to royalty will only make it worse.”
“Berethel hardly counts as royalty these days,” Father said. “He’ll pay attention to it. Just do this for me, my friend. Send a student. They won’t understand what it says even if they can read it, and I know you’ll put the fear of Cafan in them should they fail.”
“The fear of Iescwd,” Calwyd corrected him, tugging a small wooden cross on a string from the neck of his robe. “And you should know it’s an offence to name the unholy one within these walls now.”
Father’s face hardened. “The king’s command?”
“No-one else. Though they say his younger son — Larael — will be worse. He’s the one who insisted on Iescwd’s priests being appointed to the council. But I hear he’s also an insufferable worm when it comes to women and gambling, so I doubt he’s half as pious as his father is.”
“Berethel should never have abdicated,” Father said bitterly.
“And you should never have run off and left us,” Calwyd countered. “But you did, so we make the best of it.”
“I left to protect my family.”
“And yet, as I say, here you are again.”
Father ignored the jibe. “There’s one more thing,” he said. “Another message. But this one you need to deliver yourself.”
“Who is it for?”
There was a moment’s silence. “Him?” Calwyd said, his eyebrows rising. “Are you sure? If he knows you were here …”
“He’ll understand,” Father said.
“Will he? Scedan would understand, but I doubt Helm will.”
“Just deliver the message. Tell him … I’ve found another threshold.” Calwyd’s eyebrows went up still further. “It’s here, in the city. Below the palace. There’s a door in the cellars that leads to it. He needs to have someone down there by tomorrow at the latest. But not tonight.”
“Why not tonight?”
“I can’t say. Just trust me.”
“Trust you? I forgot how to do that a long time ago.”
“Then give Helm the message and forget about it. Do whatever you have to to soothe your conscience.” Father looked around the room again. “You need to get someone in here to clear up.”
“Why? I can’t see it. And besides, the smells keep me entertained. Leave it as it is. Go off and enjoy your trouble. And don’t worry about this.” He waved the note. “I’ll make sure it reaches his highness before the hour is up.”
“And the other message?”
“Yes! Yes! It’ll reach Helm safely, I swear. Though whether you’ll fare the same is anyone’s guess.”
Father reached out and clasped Calwyd’s shoulder. “I cannot thank you enough,” he said. “I’m only sorry I can’t stay longer. I’ll come back, I promise, and then we can sit and drink wine and swap stories until the sun rises.”
“Just like the old days, eh?” Calwyd shook his head. “You’re a sentimental fool, Beorod, no matter what you say. No — either you or I’ll be dead before we have time for that. I’ll meet you in Nerwnyr, and we can drink our wine from cups of gold under a sun that never sets.”
Father smiled. “Don’t you mean in Haefen?”
“Yes … yes, of course,” Calwyd muttered, embarrassed at being caught in his mistake. “Though you’ll be in Scaelen, I suppose, burning in the bale-fires.”
Father’s smile broadened. “You can visit me.”
“Across the great gulf that no man can cross?”
“You’ll find a way.”
Calwyd did not reply. Instead he reached up and clasped Father’s hand so tightly that his fingers left a mark, then he turned away and spat into the corner again.
“Go on,” he said roughly, and Father knew that he did not want him to see his tears, so he patted the old man on the shoulder again and left the room.
As he looked for the stairs to the lower level he found himself blinking back his own tears; and when at last he found the stairway he hesitated, his foot on the topmost step. No, he decided. He could not do it. To come back into the old man’s life only to ask a favour before disappearing again was a cruel act. It was not his way. If his absence was noticed he could lie — he was too valuable to the masked man to fear anything more than harsh words. He turned back and found the study door again, and pushed through without knocking this time.
“All right,” he said. “But only the one glass, and then I’m leaving.”