The soldiers did not speak, and they made the journey back to the palace in silence. Balor gaped at their surroundings as they mounted the front steps and passed through the great entrance hall, but he did not question any of it as Banac might have done. It made sense to him that Father should be treated in such a regal fashion. He did not even feel fear, just impatience that they could not get on with the business of finding Banac; and when they were ushered into Father’s rooms, and greeted by a tray of cold meats and bread, the impatience was swept away by a sudden pang of hunger.
Father let Balor fall greedily on the food, but he touched nothing himself: he felt sick to his stomach. So Aedor knew he had left his rooms; how much else did he know? Had they followed him to the college? Surely. Had they followed him inside? There was no way of knowing. He worried and fretted, sitting on the bed with his mind working furiously as he tried to see some way out of this fresh turn of bad luck, whilst Balor ate until he could eat no more then collapsed on the bed beside him and rested his head on his knee.
“Are we going to be here long?” he asked, yawning.
Father shook his head. “Not long,” he said.
“And then we’re going to find Banac?”
“Yes. And go home.”
“Do you think Mother misses us?”
“I think she misses you very much.”
“Will she be angry that we left her?”
“No, I don’t think so. She’ll be happy when she hears how brave her boys have been.”
Balor smiled and snuggled down into Father’s lap. He liked the idea of being brave. A thought occurred to him. “Who’s braver: Banac or me?”
Father tried to smile, but he could not. Instead he stroked Balor’s head. “I think you’re both equally brave,” he said. “You’re my brave boys.”
Balor sighed. His eyes were heavy from the rich food and the exhaustion of the past days. “I’m just going to have a nap,” he said. “Wake me up when we leave, all right?”
“Yes,” Father said. “You sleep now.”
Balor closed his eyes, but a moment later he opened them again.
“Yes? What is it?”
“I love you.”
A lump came to Father’s throat. His hand shook as he stroked Balor’s hair.
“I know,” he said. “I love you too, Balor.”
The hour that followed was the longest of Father’s life. Balor slept in his arms, all worry gone from his face, his breathing deep and regular, and Father held him gently and watched him. How had it ever come to this? He had left the city for this very reason, to keep his family safe, away from the politics and the intrigues — but here he was, back in the place he had given up so much to escape, and now his boys were here too. He closed his eyes and imagined his wife’s face, her eyes, her smile, and wondered if he would ever see her again.
Then he frowned. This was Haemel’s fault. If Haemel had never come then none of this would have happened. He wondered where Haemel was now, and whether he had been captured yet. He doubted it. If there was a beremer who was able to survive in the very heart of the kingdom of Padascel it was Haemel — which was fine by Father. He would leave him here to fend for himself, and maybe they would move: up or down the coast, it did not matter. They would find a new village, and start a new life, and forget everything they had left behind them.
Someone knocked, and did not wait for an answer before entering. Father looked up, expecting Aedor, but it was one of the soldiers.
“Is it time?” Father said. The soldier nodded. “I don’t want to wake my son. I’ll carry him.”
The soldier shrugged. He could not care less what a man did with his son as long as he followed orders. Father picked up Balor, who stirred in his sleep and wrapped his arms around Father’s neck, snuggling down into his shoulder; then Father followed the soldier out of the room and down the darkened corridors of the palace.
Other men fell in behind as they walked, slipping silently from the shadows to form a tight guard. Father ignored them. He had no intention of trying to escape now, not while he had Balor with him.
They took a different route to the one Aedor had used, but their destination was the same. Soon they had descended to the musty darkness of the cellars, where the soldiers took up torches before they continued; and not long afterwards they came near to the place where Father knew they would find the door.
He stopped before they reached it, and the soldiers clattered to a halt in confusion. The leader turned and raised his torch.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
Father looked down at Balor, still sleeping on his shoulder. “I don’t want my son near that place,” he said. “Is there anywhere I can leave him until I come back?”
The soldier looked hard at him for a long minute, then shrugged. His orders had not mentioned the boy. “Leave him where you like,” he said. “One of my men will watch him.”
He gestured around at the many alcoves and doorways leading off to the sides. Father peered into a couple, then chose a room that was filled with old sacks. He laid Balor down and arranged a makeshift pillow and cover to keep him warm, then kissed him once on the forehead and stepped back. It tore his heart to leave him down here in the darkness, alone, but he had no choice. He would not let him see what was hidden here.
He nodded to his escort. “I’m ready,” he said.
They left him at the door, and Father went through that opening alone. He looked back once to see their torchlit faces peering after him, then the passage curved and they were gone.
The air grew warm as he descended, and the pressure in his head began to build just as it had done before. He put a hand to his forehead and carried on.
Half-way down the passage he found a pile of neatly-folded clothes: a long brown robe and the familiar leather hood. He donned them as he had done so many times before, made sure the robe hung straight, then continued down the last section towards the cavern. As he neared the end of the passageway he heard the faint sound of many voices in low conversation, muttered words filling the air around him, and he saw the flickering, wavering light of flames. The sound and the light both increased as he walked on, until he rounded the last bend and found himself once more in the enormous cavern beneath the city, the holy place where the masked man’s most devout followers were gathered this night. And what a gathering it was.
Father immediately estimated that there were over five hundred souls in that place, though it was hard to tell in the vast expanse of the cave. They stood around in various groups, much as the men of the villages had done whilst waiting for their own ceremonies in their smaller gatherings in the forest, talking and sharing news, all identical in their robes and masks, some nodding quietly, others making a point with wide gestures, but all keeping their voices low and reverent. Between the groups burned fires — but these were nothing like the villagers’ small camp-fires which had given their flickering light beneath the trees; they were towering stacks of fuel that burned with intense light and heat and sent pillars of thick black smoke up towards the ceiling to boil and seethe and seek the narrow vents that had been carved for it by unknown hands many centuries ago. Father could feel the heat of the blazes even from where he stood at the edge of the cavern, and he put up a hand to ward it off.
He took a step forwards, and heads turned to look at him, but they did not watch him for long. He was just another robe and mask, the same as them, and they accepted him without question. Father walked cautiously through the crowds, sweating from the heat of the fires but with a cold knot of fear in his stomach — fear which he had not felt before he had seen Balor, but which now stabbed at him so that he could hardly think.
As he passed through the cavern the groups thinned out, until he was alone in the cool darkness. Fires still burned here, placed at regular intervals, but they were small affairs compared to the blazes that lay behind him and served only to mark the path to the standing stones. For a while Father walked in near-silence, the echoing voices from behind reduced to a sourceless whisper in the immensity of the cavern; then more fires appeared in the distance, and as he neared them he saw the silhouetted forms of the stones standing in their circle, surrounded by leaping flames.
The masked man was there, as Father had known he would be. He could tell it was him, for his robes were not brown but a pure, almost luminous white. He turned when he heard Father’s footsteps behind him, and with the white mask covering his face Father could not tell whether he smiled in greeting or looked at him with cold disdain. The masked man did not hold out his hand.
“Beorod,” he said, recognising him somehow behind the mask. Behind him other hooded figures were busy around the black sacrificial stone, binding something to it. Father did not look too closely. He did not want to know what would be dying this night.
“Beorod,” the masked man said again, and Father thought he detected a note of affection. “I’m glad you could come.”
“Yes, lord.” Father made a small bow, and the masked man laughed.
“Lord! That is a fine word, Beorod, especially from you. No. Tonight you shall call me ‘brother’. That is our name for each other, is it not?”
“Yes, lor— brother.”
“Better. We are a family, you see: loyal, loving, faithful to one another and to our cause. We are a brotherhood of like minds, a society of equals, a holy order with one heart and one breath. Are we not, Beorod?”
Father hesitated. Did he know? Of course he knew! It was foolish to think he did not. He looked down at the floor. “You are very wise, my brother.”
“Not wise, Beorod.” The masked man shook his head and put a comradely hand on Father’s shoulder. “Not wise. I have been shown secrets, that is all. And I have learned from them. But you — you are a wise man.”
“And why do you say that, brother?”
“Because you have listened to reason, and you have come here tonight instead of choosing to go to your grave.”
A chill went down Father’s spine. He licked his lips and nodded. “Yes, brother.”
The masked man held his gaze. Father could see his eyes through the slits in the mask, glinting in the light of the flames that leapt behind Father’s back: they were brown, but very dark, almost black, and they regarded Father steadily.
“This is a special night,” the masked man said. “An anniversary. It was twelve years ago, on this very day, that I made my discovery, that I passed through this doorway into that other place. But did you know, Beorod, that on that night something else remarkable occurred? A new star was seen in the sky, in the west, over the mountain. Iefor has searched the records for me and he confirms it. He tells me also that this star is an angel, a messenger of God that makes its journey from Haefen to earth every twelve years. He says that the proximity of this angel to the stones on that night was what opened the door to me, and that a blood sacrifice on this night, in this place, will show our sincerity and thus lead the angel to open the door once again.”
The masked man held Father’s gaze. “But what do you say, Beorod?” he said softly. There was a different tenor to his voice, something that sounded like uncertainty, and for the first time Father had the feeling that he actually wanted to hear his opinion. He looked hard into the masked man’s eyes, trying to see something of humanity there; as he looked he suddenly realised two things: firstly, that the masked man was shorter than he had first thought, maybe six inches shorter than him, and secondly, that he was a young man, maybe not much older than twenty. He felt an urge of fatherly compassion. He could almost imagine that the one standing before him was his own son.
“I cannot say, brother,” he replied, choosing his words carefully. He sensed that here was an opportunity to make a change, maybe for the better, and he did not want to spoil it. “I know nothing about stars or angels …” here he looked over at the preparations taking place behind the masked man, “… but I can tell you that I have never used blood in any of my … dealings. That is not our way. It never has been. I do not know where Iefor gets these ideas from, but they are not ours.”
The masked man nodded. “But who do you mean by ‘we’, Beorod?” he said, and his tone made the hope that had flickered in Father’s breast die. The uncertainty had suddenly gone, and he spoke calmly again. “These are men you speak of, fallible and weak. Who is to say that one man’s words are better than any other’s? Who is to say that Iefor is wrong and you are right? No …” He shook his head. “We will continue as we have begun. There is too much at stake for me to rest my hopes upon your word and your word alone.”
He paused, as if to say something more, then turned away from Father and went to attend to the preparations.
Father watched him go with a sinking heart. He had genuinely thought there was something there, some humanity he could appeal to. But the look in the masked man’s eyes before he turned away had been only hard and soulless. Whoever that young man had been, he was now damaged beyond all hope of salvation.
The men preparing the sacrifice finished their task and stepped back as the masked man approached. This time Father looked. If he was to be a part of this evil again he could at least pray for the poor soul whose last minutes were ebbing away. But as the last of the men stepped away and Father saw who it was that was bound upon the stone his heart turned to ice, and he knew that his will was about to be tested to breaking-point. The man’s skin was white, and his shaggy hair was the colour of wheat.
It was Haemel.
There was no time for anything but a brief moment of shock, for at that moment a loud horn-blast split the air, lowing long and deep, summoning the faithful to the standing stones. The ceremony was beginning.
From behind him he heard the sound of the great crowd approaching, their footsteps reverberating around the vast cavern until it sounded like the tide coming in. Father stood with his eyes fixed on Haemel’s bound and gagged form, wishing it to be a dream, wishing himself away from this awful place, until the crowd of masked figures began flowing past him, taking their places in the two long lines that snaked in and out of the twin circles, and someone began the low chant that brought silence over the rest of the gathering. Someone came beside Father and ushered him forwards into the frontmost line. He looked around at his companions, but their eyes were all fixed on the black stone in the centre and the white-robed figure who stood beside it with the black-bladed knife in his hand. They were transfixed, waiting for the mysteries to begin.
The chanting intensified, swelling in Father’s ears: hundreds of male voices all intoning the same familiar words, over and over. Father did not chant them, though he knew them by heart. He could only stand and stare at Haemel.
The pacing began. Father’s line moved to the left, and the line behind them moved to the right, so that the two lines wove in and out of the stones in a complicated pattern, at once synchronising and opposing each other. Father saw flashes of gold: the ceremonial bowls and cups being borne in both directions, representing the omnipresence of the gods. The pressure in his head was almost unbearable now, and for the first time he understood why they had always intoxicated themselves with that foul white powder before approaching the holy place. He felt as if his head was being crushed and expanded at the same time, and now the pressure was accompanied by a deep twisting in his bowels that made him gasp.
Still the chanting and the pacing continued. Father knew the rites well; they were the same as those he and his fellow men had conducted week after week in the forest near the village, under the direction of the one he was now sure had been the Scholar, Iefor. He looked around. Iefor would be here somewhere, but he could not penetrate the sea of identical, anonymous masks that surrounded him.
The pacing took him near to the black stone, and he passed close by Haemel’s head. The beremer was conscious, his eyes flicking this way and that, his breathing slow and steady. There was none of the panic Father had seen in other sacrifices. Out of all of them only Haemed had been how Haemel was now: calm, composed, calculating. Seeking a way out, a way of escape.
A deep pang pierced Father’s heart as he moved away again. There would be no escape for Haemel today. But could it have been prevented? This sliver of doubt nagged him. If he had done something earlier, if he had stopped Haemed’s killing, would any of this have happened? Would it have been for the better? His mind was torn in two. On the one hand he found himself at the heart of the enemy’s lair, privy to their most intimate counsels; but on the other hand Balor was here too, and Banac, and they were both in the greatest danger they had ever known; and now Haemel was about to die, and there was nothing he could do to help him.
The chanting was a frenzy now, though Father hardly noticed it. Men on either side of him were screaming and spitting the words, and the masked man was standing in the centre with his face upturned and the knife in the air, the black blade glinting dully in the torchlight. Father looked around. Where was Berethel? Had he got his message? Would he even come? He saw only pressed bodies and blank-eyed masks.
The chanting ceased abruptly, leaving behind a vacuum of silence. Everyone fell still, and Father stiffened. This was the moment. A single voice began its chant, low and guttural, echoing around the cave until it sounded as though the chanter was everywhere at once. The worshippers craned forwards, their eyes fixed on the masked man, straining towards him as devotees towards their god. Father copied them, though he felt oddly detached, as though he was not a participant in this ceremony. He was an observer, an outsider who had been permitted to share in something he could never be a part of.
The masked man stood as still as the stones around him, his upraised hand unwavering. The knife was edged with reflected fire. There was an atmosphere of breathless anticipation. Father’s heart was beating so hard he could feel it thumping in his chest. Sweat beaded on his brow. The tension mounted as the seconds passed, racked as taut as a drawn bowstring. Still the low voice continued its wordless chant, rising and falling all around them.
The masked man stirred. He lowered his arm, keeping it perfectly straight so that it came to rest ninety degrees from his body, the knife turned so that the handle faced the crowd. He began to turn, and the knife turned with him, moving across the blank faces that encircled the altar. Wherever that point passed the figures stiffened, then relaxed as it moved on. Father licked his lips. Someone was being chosen to perform the sacrifice.
On the stone Haemel lay still, his eyes closed now, deep in thought or prayer. Father longed to interrupt, to shout out, to snatch the knife from the masked man and slash Haemel’s bonds. But he was frozen, rooted to the spot. He could not have moved even if he had tried. He closed his eyes behind his mask. He had failed to save Haemed, and now he was going to fail to save Haemel. He did not want to watch this.
Then the chant stopped, and he opened his eyes.
The knife was pointed directly at him.