The Endless Circle – Chapter 36: Truce

Chained Hands (c) WolfSoul PhotographyThe battle in the cavern lasted longer than Berethel’s men had anticipated. The galac-men outnumbered the soldiers three to one, and many had come armed and ready for a fight. They would not give up their holiest shrine lightly, and so they rallied time and again, tight knots of defiance that gave the soldiers pause and inflicted a fair number of casualties.

But the galac-men were no warriors, and in the end inexperience worked against them. Berethel and his men pressed forward mercilessly, cutting down the resistance with the efficiency of labourers making hay. When it became clear that they were beaten the galac-men’s retreat turned into a rout and they scattered into the darkness of the chamber, seeking an escape; but Berethel had already sent men around to cut them off, and they quickly found themselves surrounded and herded back to the standing stones.

There, under a watchful guard, the prisoners were unmasked one by one, their glowering faces showing nothing but contempt for their enemies. There were exclamations of surprise at some of the faces to be uncovered, for they were either well-known or wanted for grave crimes; but nothing aroused more interest than when the white hood was pulled from the head of the masked man, and Berethel nodded grimly as he regarded the one who knelt before him.

“Brother,” he greeted him.

Larael, the crown prince of Padascel, sneered up at him and spat on his boots. “Congratulations,” he said mockingly. The arrow still protruded from his bloodied shoulder, and he could not hide the pain it was causing him. “Now release me and have a physician sent to my apartment. I will see you before the magistrate in the morning, where you will answer the charge of high treason. Hanging, I believe, is the usual penalty.”

Berethel laughed. “You’ll wait until I have time to deal with you,” he replied. “I’ll send a physician to the jail — he can tend your wound there. And when our father hears of this I’m sure he will take a very dim view.”

“Fool!” Larael spat again, and there was blood in the spittle. “Do you think he will imprison the heir to the throne? You will release me, brother, and you will remember your place when you speak to me!”

He shrieked the last words, but his threats had no effect on Berethel, who regarded him placidly then turned to his lieutenant. “Put the hood back on him when you take him upstairs,” he said. “It is not right for subjects to see their prince in such a state. When the king wakes tomorrow inform him that I will wait on his pleasure at the third bell. And remind the men they are to forget what they have seen here tonight — on pain of death. Is that understood?”

The lieutenant nodded, then gestured to two men who seized Larael’s arms and hauled him to his feet. The prince snarled at them, but then the pain from his wound made him shudder and the colour left his face. He looked around, and his eyes lighted on Father, who was sitting in the line of prisoners with his head down and his eyes on the floor.

“Traitor!” he snapped, and Father looked up. “This was your doing, I know it! You will burn in Celwn’s fires for what you have done! I will pray for a long and slow death for you and your loved ones! Remember our agreement, you streak of filth! Remember my promise! I swear I will see it fulfilled on your family!”

He would have said more, but the soldiers yanked the mask back over his face and dragged him away, still screaming muffled curses.

Father lowered his eyes to the floor again. He was exhausted in body and mind; it was the most he could do to stay sitting up. He did not care what happened to him now. He just wanted to be away from the cavern, away from the city, back to his quiet village with his wife and children.

Berethel gestured to one of his men and pointed at Father. The man approached him and helped him to his feet, then led him to where Berethel was standing in a place apart, his helmet under his arm and his long hair a tousled mess; sweat gleamed on his brow, but he managed to maintain his royal bearing as he looked at Father.

“So you are Beorod?” he said.

Father nodded. “You received my message.”

“Yes, at a very late hour. I confess I might not have acted upon such scant information from an unknown source, but as it happens I received a visitor who told me much the same story, and so I was persuaded to investigate.”

Father frowned, puzzled. “Who?”

“A boy named Banac.” Berethel smiled at the look of amazement spreading across Father’s face. “Your son, I understand?”

“Yes, yes he is.” Father shook his head, hardly able to believe what he was being told. “But how …?”

Berethel put up a hand, interrupting him. “You may quiz me all you like, but I perhaps it would be best if you heard the story from his own mouth. He is at my house even now, in the care of my wife. We shall go there as soon as we can. You should be proud of him, Beorod. You have raised a fine son.”

“Thank you, lord prince,” Father said. He clambered unsteadily to his feet. Berethel’s words had reminded him of something else. “A thousand apologies, lord prince,” he said. “But my other son, Balor, is here also. I left him at the entrance in the cellar. He must be terrified.”

“Go to him.” Berethel waved him away. “I follow shortly.”

Father bowed and thanked him, then limped away from the stones in the direction of the tunnel that led up to the entrance. He was exhausted, but his exhaustion did not slow him. He hurried as fast as his shaking legs would carry him up the winding passage, and when he reached the door at the far end he burst through it, shouting Balor’s name. He ignored the slumped bodies of Larael’s soldiers and made straight for the room where he had left Balor.

And stopped.

Haemel looked up at him, then jumped to his feet when he realised who it was. “It’s all right,” he said quickly, pointing into the corner. “He’s here, and he’s safe.”

Father did not speak. He brushed past Haemel and fell to his knees beside Balor, who had fallen asleep again and was breathing deeply. Father reached out with trembling hands and stroked his short black hair, then leaned down and folded him in a gentle embrace. Tears smarted at his eyes, but he blinked them away and held Balor for a long time.

Only when he sensed Haemel standing behind him did he relinquish his hold and stand up again, wiping the tears from his eyes and taking a long, shuddering breath. Then he looked around, and for the first time he noticed the carnage of splintered wood scattered around the room, and the trapdoor lying open.

“What happened?” he said.

“The Scholar and his pupil,” Haemel replied bitterly. “They escaped. I would have stopped them, but they threatened Balor.”

Father nodded, trying to hide his disappointment. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “We don’t need them now. We have cut off the snake’s head, and without it I hope the body will soon shrivel.”

Haemel shrugged. “That is all your affair. My business is still with Iefor. He killed my brother, and while he lives I will not rest. Now you are here I must be after him.”

He turned towards the trapdoor, but Father reached out and touched his arm, stopping him in his tracks.

“Wait,” he said. “We need you here.”

Haemel shook his head. “It is not my affair,” he repeated.

“It was Haemed’s,” Father said.

At the mention of his brother’s name Haemel stiffened, and his mouth hardened into a thin line. “Haemed is dead,” he said flatly. “And I will thank you not to use his name against me. Leave me to my business, and I will leave you to yours.” He started towards the trapdoor again.

“So what then?” Father challenged him. “You’re on a crusade to avenge his death? Is that it? You’ll baptise Haemed’s corpse with blood until your rage is satisfied?”

“Do not use his name against me!” Haemel rounded on Father with a dangerous light in his eyes. “You will not mention my brother’s name again! And if I were to avenge him I should start with you!”

“Why? Because I was there when he died?”

“Because you could have saved him!”

“I could have done nothing!”

“You could have stopped the ceremonies! You could have stepped in. You were there, Beorod, and you just watched as they … butchered him!”

“And what would you have had me do? In front of fifty men? You know as well as I that once Haemed fell into their hands his death was inevitable!”

“Mine wasn’t!”

They stood face to face, their eyes locked and their hands balled into fists as the pent-up rage inside each of them threatened to boil over into violence. Haemel was breathing like an animal, and Father was glaring at him defiantly, daring him to strike. For a moment it seemed as though he would, then he turned away with a snarl and stalked to the far side of the room where he stood with his back turned.

For long minutes they did not speak. Father sat down on a pile of sacks, sagging wearily, and at last it was he who broke the silence.

“You are right,” he said. He looked down at Balor’s sleeping form beside him. “You were saved from the knife, and Haemed was not. But I could not have done what Banac did when he rescued you. Banac had nothing to lose if he was discovered. It was an acceptable risk.”

“Acceptable?” Haemel snorted with sarcastic laughter. “He had his life to lose, Beorod. They both had their lives.”

“And I had the lives of hundreds on my conscience when I made my decision!” Father said. “And do not forget that I put my sons at risk for your sake, Haemel. To save you. Do not forget that!” He ran his hands over his scalp and rubbed at his eyes in frustration. “Can you not imagine the anguish of soul I suffered when I sent Banac after you? With Haemed gone, and your life in danger, and my son the only one within a hundred miles who could do anything about it? Knowing that he could go to no-one for help, and yet knowing what would happen if he failed? And he not yet a man! You have no sons, Haemel, and until you do you cannot know what agony I suffered that night. I love you, Haemel, and I loved Haemed, and I would do anything for you. I beg you, do not blame me for his death. If I could have changed places with him I would — I would have died for him, do you understand? But I could not. It was impossible. And now whenever I close my eyes I see his face — is that not punishment enough for me?”

He fell silent, staring up at Haemel, looking for some reply. Haemel stood grim-faced, but he did not speak for a long time. When he did it was in a low, husky voice, and he turned his face away.

“It is enough,” he said shortly. “But others are accountable, and I will not rest until they are found. I have wasted enough time already.”

He moved to the trapdoor again. Father reached out a pleading hand.

“Wait!” he called. “Please! We need you, Haemel. If you go now then everything we have worked so hard for all these long years will be wasted. Haemed was a delicate thread, and now that thread has been snapped we need another to take its place, or else we shall go back to the way we were. Do you want that? Do you want your brother’s dreams to be thrown away because of your thirst for blood? If you go after the Scholar now he will truly have won, because everything he worked for will come to pass, and both our people will be ruined.”

Haemel had stopped by the trapdoor, and though he did not turn, Father sensed his hesitation and pressed on with his argument.

“Revenge can wait,” he said. “The Scholar will not go far, and if you come with me you will have the might of Padascel at your disposal to hunt him down. It is the least we could do for you.”

“And how do you propose to secure the might of Padascel for the cause of one beremer?” Haemel threw the question over his shoulder.

“Because I am going to the house of the prince Berethel tonight, and there I will tell him everything. I have done him a great service tonight, and I think we can use that service to buy our way into his favour.”

Haemel scoffed. “He will not bestow that favour on the beremen.”

“Maybe he will and maybe he won’t — but we have risked too much to let it all fall apart now. Come with me, Haemel. Come and speak with him. Take your brother’s place, and maybe we will be able to make peace again. But if you leave now you will be condemning us all to years of conflict, if not open war. Can you bear that weight on your conscience?”

Again Haemel was silent, and Father knew he was wrestling with himself and did not disturb him. Once or twice Haemel’s foot wavered, as though he was about to leave, but in the end he turned away from the trapdoor, though his face was dark and brooding.

“I will come with you,” he agreed. “Though I will not do it for your sake.”

“For whose, then?”

“For his.” Haemel pointed at Balor. “And for Banac’s. And for my own sons’ sakes, if I bear them. May they never know what we have known in these years. May they have peace. We had better give them peace, Beorod.”

Father nodded. “We will,” he said. “Thank you.” He stood and limped back to Balor, and looked down at him gently. “Come to Berethel’s house and wait for me. Will you be able to find it?”

“Of course.” Haemel paused. “Would you have done it?” he said.

“Done what?”

“Sacrificed me. Slit my throat. To protect your cover.”

“He threatened my family, Haemel.”

“So would you have done it? To save them?”

Father hesitated, and when he turned to answer the question the cellar was empty.

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