Ok … This is the chapter I missed out earlier in the week, so please cast your minds back: Banac has just gained entry to Berethel’s home, and Elwaen has just gone to fetch her father. Balor and Father have not found each other yet. It is early evening.
Now read on …
* * *
While Banac waited for Elwaen to return he looked round the immaculate study. He was uncomfortably aware of just how dirty he was, and so he tried not to touch anything.
Opposite the door the shutters on three arched windows along one wall had been thrown back to let in the evening air. The other walls were filled with shelves and shelves of strange, thin items all stacked neatly in rows — had Banac seen a book before, he would have appreciated the enormous intellectual and material wealth represented in that room. As it was, he had no idea what they were.
A large desk had been positioned in front of the windows, to catch the light. It was neat and uncluttered: the only objects on it were a square piece of parchment, a glass bottle of blue-black ink, an enormous feathered quill in a silver stand, and a tall, heavy seal set on a wooden block to one side. On either side of the desk were two polished wooden pedestals, their stands level with Banac’s chin. Sitting on the left-hand pedestal was a carved wooden head, smooth and featureless, on which was displayed a battered helmet. The helmet was far too large for any normal-sized man to have worn; it was roughly-made, and a great ragged tear ran from the crown down to where the face would be. On the right-hand pedestal was a thin circlet of bronze, with a small indentation where a precious stone might have sat.
Banac saw nothing remarkable in either of these exhibits. It was what hung over the open fireplace that most fascinated him, and he found himself wandering over to admire it: a long, straight sword, the blade notched here and there, the pommel set with a dark red stone that changed hue as he moved towards it. As he looked at the sword something that stirred inside him: a strange, excited feeling. He had felt it just twice since they had left the village — once when he had cut through into the forest, and again just that morning, after he had been captured. It was the thrill of something forbidden yet powerful, the feeling that he could do anything if he just had a sword in his hands.
He heard voices outside, approaching the room from along the balcony, and he stepped quickly away from the fireplace.
The voices were arguing.
“He’s just a boy! What could he possibly do?” He recognised the girl, Elwaen.
“Boy he may be, but I won’t have you letting strangers into my house on a whim.” Banac recognised the other voice in an instant, and almost as soon as the words were spoken Berethel entered the room with his daughter trailing behind.
The prince was relaxed in shirtsleeves and breeches, and his hair fell loosely about his face. But even so he was as royal and noble as he had been on the day he came to the village, exuding confidence and an air of absolute authority. Banac looked away, not sure how to behave, but Berethel did not appear to have noticed him. He threw himself down in a nearby chair, still addressing Elwaen.
“It’s a matter of etiquette as much as security,” he said. “Our family is privileged enough to hold a certain station here within the city, and we cannot be seen to ignore the boundaries that go with that station. For example, we do not receive visitors of a lower class unless by express invitation.”
“Well, I invited him,” Elwaen said sulkily, putting out her lip, and Berethel smiled.
“It’s not the same thing,” he said, patting her arm. Then he turned and looked on Banac. “Why are you still standing? Come, lad, sit! Sit!”
Banac obeyed and scurried over to the nearest seat, perching on the very edge so as to not spoil it. He was acutely aware of both sets of eyes trained on him. He felt like a curiosity, an interesting oddity that had been brought in to be gaped at. Which, in a way, he was.
Berethel glanced at Elwaen. “I think that’s enough staring for now, thank you,” he said. “You shall have your chance to play with him after we’re finished. Off you go.”
Elwaen stuck out her lip even further, but she dared not disobey. She flounced out of the room with her head held high.
When she was gone Berethel slumped down in his chair and sighed.
“So,” he said. “What’s this all about? I have a son whose teeth are just coming through and a wife who has had more than her fair share of sleepless nights. About a hundred messengers turn up at my gate every day, with demands from all manner of people, and now my daughter tells me you wish to have a private audience. As you can see I’m a busy man. Usually I would turn you away as soon as look at you, but as you’ve had the good fortune to be introduced to me by my ever-trying daughter you may as well say your piece. Don’t look so terrified! If this is just a waste of my time it won’t be you who suffers, I assure you. Speak up.”
Banac licked his lips. The prince’s steady gaze burned into him. All the words he had prepared flew out of his head, leaving an empty space that began to fill up with rising panic.
“I need your help,” he managed to say.
Berethel nodded. “Very well. What for? And why should I give it?”
“I need you to help me find my Father.” Banac struggled to organize his thoughts. “He’s here in the city. The Scholar took him, and Aedwyc … and you were there as well, but you didn’t take him. You helped me then. I thought you’d help me now … But I have to tell you something, but I’ll only tell you if you help me … But I really, really need your help, so you have to help me! You have to!”
Berethel held up a hand. “One thing at a time,” he said. “You say you want me to find your father. Tell me why I should do this for you.”
Banac closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts into some sort of order. “Because there’s going to be a meeting of galac-men here in the city in less than three hours,” he said. “And I know where it is. And if you help me, I’ll tell you where to find them.”
At Banac’s words all expression left the prince’s face. He sat up a little straighter, and stared at Banac a little harder, and for a long time he said nothing, but sat as still as a statue. Banac could feel his palms growing slick with sweat. He rubbed them on his legs, and wished Berethel would stop staring at him. He could not tell whether what he had said was good or bad. He just wanted to know which it was and get it over with.
“Well done,” said Berethel at last. “You’ve managed to get my interest. What is this meeting; where is it; and what time will it start?”
Banac shook his head. “I’m not saying anything until you promise to help my Father. I’m sorry, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you.”
“Nor I you,” replied Berethel. But he did not move. He seemed to be deep in thought, and his eyes remained on Banac’s face.
After another few minutes’ silence Berethel reached behind him to one of the shelves and picked up a tiny silver bell, which tinkled sweetly and clearly when he rang it. After a short wait there were footsteps on the balcony, and Delan the dwaeremer entered the room. When he saw Banac he sniffed distastefully.
“Have you finished with this one, m’lord?” he said.
“Not yet,” said Berethel, and Delan’s face fell. “Bring us something to eat and drink. Something light. No. Wait.” He addressed Banac. “When was the last time you ate?”
Banac thought back to the meal of greasy fox-meat on the hillside with Balor and Haemel. “Yesterday morning, I think.”
Berethel turned back to the dwaeremer. “Make it a proper meal. Roast meats, bread, any stew cook might have. Bring water and spiced wine with it. That’s all.”
Delan bowed stiffly and retreated, though not without first shooting Banac a look of pure venom.
Berethel settled back in his chair again. His look of indifference was gone. Now he focused on Banac as if seeing him for the first time.
“I have a feeling there is a tale behind this,” he said. “You have already mentioned that I am somehow involved, but you also say we have less than three hours before this supposed meeting; therefore I suggest you summarise the main events for me, and quickly.”
Banac nodded. Now he had the prince’s attention he did not seem quite so terrifying. He took a deep breath, quickly sorted the events in his head, and began to speak.
He began at the beginning, with he and Balor running away from school to the standing stones, and what they found there. He spoke as quickly and briefly as he could, including the most important details — though he was careful to leave out any mention of Haemel’s involvement beyond the rescue in the forest. Berethel’s sympathy, he suspected, would take him only so far. Once or twice he stopped and went back on himself, and occasionally Berethel interrupted to ask for clarification, but in fifteen minutes he had given the entire story as far as he knew it.
As he finished he was relieved to see that Berethel was nodding steadily.
“What you say makes sense,” the prince said. “I remember that day, and I remember you. Let me assure you firstly that seldom in my life have I been so disgusted by a person’s conduct as I was by this Scholar and his lap-dog Baron’s son. Had I had my own way they would have been left behind to defer to wiser men.
“You speak of the galac-men also — let me assure you again, their order is long dead, and no-one in this kingdom has managed to revive them. That was a dark time for our people, and such times will not swiftly come around, I pray. Yes, I know what you saw, and I believe you. But I am not a fool. The men you saw were not the galac-men, but a group seeking to emulate them. For some time now I have been aware of such groups operating within my father’s lands — I hear news of similar rituals to those you speak of, sacrifices, offerings of blood, and always conducted against minorities: dwaeremen, foreigners, people who will not be soon missed and whose disappearances will not be investigated thoroughly. But this is the first time I have heard of beremen being involved, and I confess it disturbs me.”
There was a cough at the door, startling them both. Delan stood in the doorway, holding a tray from which steam rose in a cloud of aromas that made Banac’s stomach ache. Berethel beckoned him in and gestured to the table.
“Put it here,” he said.
“Very well, m’lord. There is also a letter for m’lord. From the college. The messenger said it was urgent.” Delan handed him a scrap of parchment, bowed and left the room.
“You must be hungry,” said Berethel when they were alone again, and he waved a hand at the food. “Please, begin. We have no formalities in this house.”
While Banac fell on the food Berethel unfolded the parchment and read what was written there. His eyebrows rose, then he leaned over and tossed it in the fire.
“Iescwd must favour you,” he said.
Banac looked up, though he did not stop eating.
“That note contained much the same information as you have just given me,” Berethel explained. “And a little more. I think it is Iescwd’s wish that we should finally eradicate this menace tonight. If this meeting of yours turns out to be what I believe it is, then you shall have my thanks and my help, and we shall find your father and your brother. From what you tell me it seems this Scholar is a ring-leader, and a dangerous individual. If he can be put in a cell I will be a happy man. And this other man — the one in the coach. You did not manage to see his face at all? Not even a glimpse?”
Banac shook his head, his mouth too full to speak, and Berethel sighed.
“A pity. But it is a fair guess he will be there.” He smiled suddenly, and his face lit up like the sun. “I think Iescwd has brought you here today, Banac. Though we struggle through fogs of misery, Iescwd shines above all and sees the path we take. It is his hand that has brought all this to pass. Be assured of it.”
Banac was not sure what Berethel meant, but he knew that whoever this Iescwd was he certainly had nothing to do with Cafan. Cafan had stopped watching over him a long time ago.
A bell rang from somewhere nearby. Banac jumped up in alarm, scattering gravy across the floor, but it was not the evening bell. It was smaller, and it was ringing inside the compound.
Berethel laughed. “Calm yourself,” he said. “It is my brother, arriving for his weekly visit. Though I confess he’s never usually this early.”
From outside came the clattering of horses’ hooves and the rumble of wheels. Berethel stood up and went to the door.
“Elwaen!” he called, and quickly (too quickly for her to have been very far away) she appeared at the doorway, peering in at Banac. “Elwaen, you are to take care of Banac. See that he’s washed and clothed, and bring him to meet your mother. He is to be treated as an honoured guest. Do you understand?”
Elwaen nodded, her face a picture of burning curiosity.
“Excuse me?” Banac said tentatively. “I don’t think there will be enough time to wash before we go, will there?”
“Whoever said anything about you coming with me?” said Berethel. Banac began to protest, but the prince held up a hand to stop him. “No. Do not try to change my mind. Believe me, Banac — tonight will not be a night for children. You have done enough! You have come this far on your own, and you have gained the ear of the third most powerful man in all Padascel! Be proud of yourself, and take a well-earned rest. My family will care for you as one of our own. When I return, we will talk more. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
Banac was wise enough to keep his mouth shut. It felt unfair, somehow, that he had come so far only to be left out at the very end. But he understood what Berethel was saying; and besides, he could think of worse ways to spend an evening than in Elwaen’s company.
With a final farewell Berethel left them. Banac heard him call out to someone in the courtyard below, and an answering call; then Elwaen stepped into his view, her nose wrinkled and her mouth screwed up at one side.
“All right then,” she said. “Who are you really?”
“I’m no-one,” said Banac. “Really. I just want to get Father back and go home.”
“Hmph!” She made the same disapproving sound as before and turned away. “I’m going to say hello to my uncle,” she said over her shoulder. “You can come, if you want.”
Banac followed her out on to the balcony, looking around nervously. He did not feel like meeting another prince. One a day was more than enough.
Then he looked down at the courtyard, and every other thought vanished from his head.
A black coach stood in the middle of the courtyard, pulled by a team of black horses, their silver bridles glinting brightly in the last rays of the sun. Berethel stood beside the coach, embracing a man a few inches shorter than him who was clothed all in black with black gloves on his hands. He heard them laugh as they teased each other with brotherly words, then the man in black glanced up at the balcony, and their eyes met, and Banac felt his legs gave way and he fell heavily against the wall. He felt sick. He wanted to run away.
He was dimly aware of Elwaen beside him.
“What?” she said, clutching his arm. “What is it?”
Banac shook his head. It could not be true. He had to be dreaming. It had to be some hideous nightmare. Only then would it make sense, and he could wake up and find himself back at home.
Elwaen was shouting for help, but her words were far-off and slurred. There was a stab of pain in his stomach, and he doubled over as it churned and convulsed, and he vomited against the wall. People were running towards him. There were voices.
“He’s exhausted …”
“… get him inside …”
“… clear up this mess …”
Then his legs gave way completely and he keeled over, but strong hands caught him and lifted him up. He tried to protest, to tell them he was all right, to warn them about the man in the black coach, but his words would not come out.
He felt himself slipping further and further away from the voices, and the last thing he knew was Elwaen’s worried face looking down at him before he was plunged into darkness.
* * *
Banac opened his eyes. He was lying in a bed with soft sheets and deep pillows, in a large room where a fire burned brightly in the hearth. The shutters had been closed on the windows, but he could tell it was already dark outside. He tried to sit, and a gentle hand pushed him down. He looked to see who it was: Elwaen was sitting beside the bed, and an older woman sat in a chair in the corner of the room, nursing a baby.
“Lie still,” said Elwaen. Any trace of girlishness had gone from her voice; her face was grave, and her eyes were full of worry. “You’re very ill.”
Banac obeyed and lay back, but he was awake now, and he did not close his eyes. “What happened?” he asked.
Elwaen did not answer. Instead she looked to the other woman for support, and the woman nodded and came over to sit on the bed, still cradling her child.
“You were exhausted,” she explained. “You collapsed, and the servants brought you down here. You worried us all for a while. Our physician, Delan — I think you know him — thinks it was the effect of rich food on your empty stomach, combined with lack of sleep. He said you’re to stay in bed and take only gruel and water for now.”
Banac squinted at her. He must have looked confused, because the woman laughed and said, “I’m forgetting myself. My name is Aela. Berethel is my husband, and Elwaen is my daughter.” She lifted the baby so Banac could see. “This young man is our son, Berethor. He’ll be a year old next month.”
Banac managed a polite smile, but he had more questions to ask.
“My husband has gone out with his men to this meeting you told him about,” the woman said, a touch reproachfully. “We won’t hear word of him for another few hours at least.”
“I’m sorry,” said Banac. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just wanted to know.” A memory stirred in the back of his mind. “What about the man in the coach?”
“Uncle?” said Elwaen. “He left when you fainted. Said he didn’t want to be any trouble.”
Banac closed his eyes. The memory was confused now, and he could not be sure what he had seen; but he knew what he had thought, and he could not shake it from his mind. Was it just his imagination? Surely it was impossible. Who knew how many people in the city had black coaches, or wore black gloves, or had that distinctive voice … ?
The baby began to whine, breaking into his troubled thoughts. Aela started to sing, and to Banac’s surprise he knew the song — it was one Mother used to sing to them when they were younger, to lull them to sleep.
He opened his eyes. Aela was rocking her son and singing to him softly, a faint smile on her face. She reminded him so much of his own Mother — not in her face, but in the way she gazed at Berethor, the way she held him with such love, the way she enfolded him and protected him — that he found himself longing more than ever to be home, and for all these terrible things to be finished.
He turned his face away as tears sprang into the corners of his eyes. They were not tears of pain, or of fright, or of loneliness; they were tears of love, and yearning for home, and they trickled down his cheeks and stained the pillow. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing them to stop. He did not want Elwaen to see.
Then he felt a hand on his arm, running gently down his wrist to his fingers. He started to pull away, but the hand held on to his stubbornly, and the more he tugged the tighter it gripped him.
He looked over his shoulder. Elwaen’s eyes were fixed on his, and her expression was unreadable; her knuckles were white from gripping his hand so tightly. A new feeling welled up inside him, and as it grew the yearning for home faded a little.
Aela’s song finished, her voice faded away, and Banac lay in the bed with Elwaen holding his hand and waited to see what would become of him.
* * *
Now, none of you pointed out that I had missed this one. Does this mean that it is redundant? Please enlighten me via the comments section. Ah, me …