Ok: back to the normal order of things …
– – – – – – – – –
Balor stirred awake, frowning at how uncomfortable his bed had become. It had been soft and downy, but now it was rough, and the sheets scratched his skin. He put out a hand to feel for Father, and when he found no-one beside him he sat up with a start, blinking through the darkness.
Something was wrong. He was not in the luxurious bedroom at all. Instead he was in some sort of cellar that smelt of earth and smoke, surrounded by discarded bits of wood and rubbish.
His heartbeat quickened, and for a moment he thought he might be dreaming. But no — the cold breeze on his face was real enough, as was the torch-smoke that caught in his throat and made him cough. He called out for Father, and recoiled as a strange man appeared in the doorway, shadowed in the ruddy light, and told him to quieten down.
“Where am I?” Balor said. “Where’s Father?”
“You’re safe enough,” the man said. “For now. Yer daddy’s nearby, and I dare say you’ll see him again before long. Now shut up and lie down, else I’ll shut you up myself.”
He jabbed a finger in Balor’s direction to emphasize his point, and Balor flinched back. The man laughed and turned away, leaving Balor alone in the darkened room.
Balor looked around, utterly bewildered. Why was he here? Where had Father gone? Who were these men? He crouched back down in the makeshift bed of sacks and pulled one over himself, shivering in the cold, and because he could think of nothing else to do he closed his eyes and prayed to Cafan to help him.
* * *
All eyes were on Father. He could hear his own heart beating, loud in the silence that surrounded him. Already he had waited too long. Feet were beginning to shuffle, heads were beginning to turn as men wondered what was causing the delay.
Father looked into the masked man’s eyes. He could not see his face, but he knew that behind the mask he was smiling. This was his punishment for daring to consider an escape, the masked man’s idea of poetic justice. The knife was steady in the masked man’s hand, an invitation, a rebuke, evidence of the masked man’s hold over his life. He could only accept it. To refuse would mean death for his family.
He stepped forwards, away from the crowded bodies, and approached the altar. Haemel’s eyes were still closed. Father was grateful for the mask he wore. Even if those eyes opened, Haemel would never know who it was that had sent him into the afterlife.
He reached out and took the knife from the masked man’s hand. It came away easily, willingly, and lay cold and hard in his hand. He swallowed. His mouth was dry. He could hardly breathe. The pressure in his head was nearly unbearable.
“Remember our bargain,” the masked man whispered, just loud enough for him to hear. Father did not reply.
He walked past the masked man, and suddenly there was nothing between him and the black stone. Everything else became far-away and insubstantial: the hooded figures surrounding him, the stones, the cavern, the smoky torchlight. It was just he and Haemel, and the jagged black knife. He stood over the white body, his hands clammy with sweat. How had it come to this? What events had conspired to bring him to this place? He closed his eyes and sent a silent prayer to Cafan, but felt nothing in reply; and when he opened them again Haemel was staring up at him, his blue eyes piercing.
“Beorod.” He heard the masked man’s voice in his ear, and felt his presence behind him. “Do it.” His voice was low and urgent. “Do it for your family. What is it to you? It is a beremer. It has no soul and no king. It has the mind of an animal and yet it goes about in the flesh of men to fool us. Do this and you shall be on my right hand. Do not think of Iefor. He is an old man, and his time is long past. It is you I want, Beorod, you!”
The masked man’s hand gripped Father’s wrist, bringing his hand up over Haemel’s naked chest. The white skin was red with reflected torchlight. Like snow at sunset, Father thought. Still Haemel’s eyes did not leave his face. He was looking on his death, and he would face it as a man, the proud son of Hereth-en-Aglar. He would not flinch, Father knew, not even at the killing strike.
Forgive me, he thought. Merciful Cafan, forgive me for what I am about to do this day. Then he closed his eyes, raised the knife still higher, and tensed himself to strike.
There was a soft, fleshy thud behind him, and a grunt of pain from the masked man. He turned. The masked man was staggering away from the altar with his left hand clasped to his shoulder. Something protruded from it, something long and thin with feathers sprouting from its tip, and a river of blood was already pouring down the pristine white robe which was suddenly, startlingly red.
Shouts rang out: of challenge and reply; of command and defiance; anger met by hatred; attack met by defence; sword on sword and steel on flesh; then victory and triumph answered by pain and fear; and dark-robed figures were fleeing past him in a great wave, pursued by armoured men with helmed heads and bright swords.
The knife was still in Father’s hand. He looked around him at the sudden chaos. Men were running here and there in the eerie half-light of the flames, shouting, stumbling, roaring, bleeding. He looked down at Haemel. He was straining against the ropes, his muscles bunched and his face impassive as he struggled to escape.
Father dropped down so that his head was level with Haemel’s ear. “When I cut the ropes you must run,” he said. Haemel jerked his head round, surprise written across his thin features. “Promise me you will run, son of Haeleg. This is no cowardice. It is wisdom. I will find you, when the circle turns.”
The look of surprise turned to amazement, then dawning recognition. But Father had no time. He stood and slashed at the ropes, and when they were loosened Haemel leapt up and paused for only a second before he darted away into the crowd.
Father watched him go, then he dropped the knife to the floor, reached up to take of his hood, and knelt on the floor with his hands behind his head and waited to be arrested.
* * *
The first Balor knew that something was not quite right was when it went quiet. The men outside the room had been moving about, talking in low voices and joking with each other, and the clink of their armour and the sound of their talk had echoed quietly and constantly in the darkness; but suddenly those sounds ceased, leaving only silence behind them.
He sat up in his makeshift bed and looked around, his body tingling. The torches still burned in the passageway outside, but there were no accompanying shadows of men walking about. His breathing quickened, and his right hand began to clench and unclench of its own accord. He thought about calling out, but his throat had become suddenly tight and he could not make a sound. A moment later he was glad he had not, for other voices echoed down the passageway and shapes of men flitted past the doorway, only these men carried drawn swords, and there were a lot more of them. Balor tried to count, but gave up at fifty; and still they carried on, more and more of them. Somewhere down the corridor the front of the column halted, and the rest shuffled to a standstill.
“Here, sir,” Balor heard one of them say after a minute.
“Good,” someone replied, and Balor thought he recognised that rich, cultured voice. “Now remember, we don’t know what we’re going to find down there, but whatever it is, your orders are to disrupt it and make as many arrests as you can. You may encounter resistance, and if you do then you are to match it blow for blow. If this is what we suspect it is, you will be serving your king, your city, and your god with every drop of blood you draw. Is it understood?”
There was a muttered chorus of gruff agreement, then the long, drawn-out creak of a door on rusty hinges, the shuffling sound of all those men moving on again, then more silence.
Balor waited, his heart beating fast, but there were no other sounds: only the soft sighing of the breeze that found its way down here through narrow chimneys. How long he waited, he did not know. It seemed like an eternity. Two or three times he thought about getting up and following the men, but each time his nerves got the better of him and he stayed where he was, his ears pricking for any sound in the vast silence.
Then, after a long pause, he heard voices approaching, and hurried footsteps.
“Quick,” someone said. “There’s another way out up here.”
“Just wait,” someone else replied, then sucked air through his teeth. “Iescwd’s beard, that hurts!”
“No-one wants to know about your scratch,” the first voice snapped dismissively. “Younger men than you have had worse than that before.”
“My boot’s filling with blood,” the second shot back. “I don’t call that a scratch. I’ll be a cripple when it’s healed.”
The voices were in the passageway outside now, and Balor’s hand clenched and unclenched faster. He recognised those voices — recognised and feared them.
The light of a torch showed outside the door, flickering and wavering, and a moment later two figures followed it, ducking through the doorway and into the room. Balor barely had time to scramble behind a pile of sacking as the Scholar raised his torch and looked around; Aedwyc limped behind him, his left leg a mass of blood and shredded material from the knee down. While the Scholar peered around the room the Baron’s son staggered to the sacks that had made Balor’s bed and threw himself down.
The Scholar glared at him. “Don’t get comfortable. When they notice we’re not there they’ll be after us like hounds on a fox.”
“Who’s to say they’re looking for us?”
“They will,” the Scholar said darkly, “because that fool Beorod will have told them to.” He spat viciously. “I should’ve killed him when I had the chance. Now help me move these.”
He waved the torch at a jumble of planks stacked in one corner, and Aedwyc groaned.
“But my leg—”
“Iescwd damn your leg!” the Scholar snapped, then slapped him in the face.
Aedwyc looked up at him, stunned. “You can’t do that!”
“What, because your father’s some stinking fat baron who can’t pick his own nose without a servant to do it for him?” The Scholar spat again. “Don’t fool yourself, Aedwyc. You’re naught but a boy, and a boy whose mother should have whipped him a good deal more than she did. Maybe then you would have learned some manners. Now help me!”
For a moment Aedwyc glowered at the Scholar darkly, and Balor thought he would strike him; but he stood and limped over the the planks and began tossing them aside, pouting like a spoilt child. The Scholar grunted in satisfaction and helped him, dragging the planks out of the corner so that a space was cleared. When they had removed most of the debris Aedwyc bent down and grasped something in the floor and pulled hard. There was a long, low creak as a trap-door swung open in the floor. The Scholar brushed off his hands and crouched by the hole.
He nodded. “It looks clear,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He stood up and took one last look around the room, and Balor held his breath and made himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. And maybe it was fate, or maybe it was the will of Cafan, but with that last sweep of the torch the light fell directly into Balor’s hiding-place, and the Scholar looked him straight in the eye.
For a heartbeat the Scholar did nothing. He and Balor stared at each other, like predator and prey who have met unexpectedly and are not sure who will move first. Then the Scholar jerked his chin in Balor’s direction. “Here,” he said, and suddenly Aedwyc was there, his knife in his hand and his arm wrapped around Balor’s shoulders. Balor unfroze and began to kick against him, but Aedwyc just laughed mercilessly and dragged him to his feet, his strong arm tight around Balor’s throat.
The Scholar smiled, a gruesome leer of sheer merciless pleasure. “Well,” he said. “This is an interesting turn of events. It’s Balor, isn’t it? Yes, I’d know you anywhere. You have your father’s insufferable air of self-righteousness about you. Well, well. Perhaps there is a god in Haefen after all.”
Balor glared at him, but there was no menace in his look. He was trapped, and he knew it. Aedwyc’s knife rested against his cheek just as it had done against Banac’s, the feel of sharpened steel sending a shudder through his body. The Scholar swaggered forward until he was standing right in front of him, and lowered his head so that their eyes were level. Balor squirmed, trying to get away from that cold, murderous gaze, but Aedwyc held him firm.
“So,” the Scholar murmured, almost to himself. “If we cannot have the fisherman or his brat we shall make do with this minnow. Maybe the interfering fool will finally learn some manners when we send him one or two of these pinkies.”
He pinched Balor’s fingers hard and chuckled like a kindly old uncle. The sound sent a fresh shiver down Balor’s spine.
“All right.” The Scholar nodded to Aedwyc. “We’ve wasted enough time here. This is a pretty prize. Bring it with you. I think we’ll find a use for it.”
Aedwyc hauled Balor up on to his tip-toes, laughing dirtily as he did so. Balor struggled against the pressure on his windpipe as Aedwyc squeezed it, but he was no match for a grown man, and he choked ineffectually.
“Come on,” he heard the Scholar say. “Let’s get going before we’re missed.”
Aedwyc moved to follow the Scholar down into the hole, but something checked him, and he stopped.
“What is it?” the Scholar snapped; then he, too, stopped where he was as he saw what Aedwyc had seen.
A man stood in the doorway, robed and masked. He did not move or make a sound, but all the same an unmistakeable air of threat emanated from him. All three of them could feel it, just as an animal knows when it is being stalked.
“What do you want?” The Scholar challenged the newcomer, moving in front of the trapdoor to hide their escape route.
“Where are you taking that boy?” the figure replied.
“It’s not your business,” said the Scholar; Aedwyc tightened his grip on Balor’s throat.
The figure in the doorway was unperturbed by this answer. He stepped forwards into the room, and both the Scholar and Aedwyc backed away instinctively.
“Tell us who you are!” the Scholar demanded. “Your name, man!”
“My name is Death,” said the figure, stepping towards them again; and again the Scholar and Aedwyc backed away; but sudden, bright hope sprang into Balor’s breast, for he recognised that voice. It was one he had sworn he never wanted to hear again; but now he forgot that oath, for the voice was like the sun rising over a darkened plain, shedding warming beams before it, a ray of hope in the midst of despair, the voice of his saviour. The man reached up and pulled the hood from his head, and tangles of yellow hair cascaded down over his shoulders, and two piercing blue eyes glared out from his thin, white face.
The Scholar’s eyes widened. “You!” he snarled.
“Let him go,” said Haemel.
“I think not,” said the Scholar. “Aedwyc, hold him tight!”
The knife dug deeper into Balor’s cheek, drawing a cry of pain and a bright bead of blood. Haemel took another step towards them.
“I swear, if you harm that boy …”
“Then what?” The Scholar sneered. “You stay where you are, beast! We’re leaving this place, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it.”
Aedwyc laughed and adjusted his grip on the knife, and the back of his hand pressed against Balor’s lips. Balor hesitated, but only for a second, then he opened his mouth wide and bit down hard on the hairy flesh.
Aedwyc gave a shout of pain and surprise; Haemel darted forwards, sensing an opening; Aedwyc roared in reply, shook Balor off, and brought his knife-arm around, releasing the blade so that it spun end over end through the air towards Haemel — or rather, to where Haemel should have been. He was already ducking to avoid the knife, reaching down for one of the wooden planks that lay discarded on the floor, flicking it up effortlessly, spinning, lashing out, striking at Aedwyc’s head. Balor felt the breeze as the plank passed over him and smashed into Aedwyc’s cheek, caving it in instantly, and then he was tumbling away from Aedwyc’s falling body and skidding across the floor and hitting a pile of boxes so hard the wind was knocked from him.
As he lay gasping on the cold stone floor there was a scuffle, a shout, a loud bang, then silence. Strong hands grasped him and rolled him over. It was Haemel, kneeling down to check him for injuries.
“Are you all right?” he said as he looked. He did not meet Balor’s eyes.
Balor nodded. He could not speak. All the strength had gone from him, and he was shaking, just shaking, as if all the bones had been stripped from his body. He felt hot and cold all at once; his breath came in shallow gasps; he could hardly hold himself up. He had nearly died! The thought burned itself in screaming letters across his mind, and left him empty and dumbfounded, unable to think or speak.
Haemel finished his check, and finally Balor found the words he was searching for:
“Where did they go?”
Haemel glanced over at the trapdoor with a sour expression. “Escaped,” he said shortly, and Balor could tell that word was bitter in his mouth.
“Safe.” Haemel stooped and lifted him with strong arms, and suddenly the realisation of what had happened came crashing down on Balor and he burst into tears, burying his face into Haemel’s robed shoulder and sobbing for all he was worth. Haemel looked down at him with a bemused expression on his white face, as if the significance of the tears escaped him. For a long while he stood awkwardly, wondering what he should do or say, but in the end only four words came to him.
“It’s all right, Balor,” he said. “It’s all right.”
They were the right words.