Banac could not stay in bed. Aela had given him a stern words of warning to try not to move, but as soon as she and Elwaen left the room he was on his feet and limping up and down, fretting about what might be happening.
He kept trying to imagine what was going on, trying to picture where Berethel might be. Had he found the meeting? Had he managed to stop it? The questions gnawed at him, and as the hours dragged by doubts began to fester, making him fretful, and he jumped at the smallest sounds and imagined terrible things.
“It’s no good, you know.”
He spun round guiltily. Elwaen was leaning against the door-post with her arms folded.
“What’s no good?” he said, looking away.
“Worrying.” Elwaen sat down in a chair in the corner and crossed her legs., adjusting her skirt daintily. “Father will be away for hours, I should think. Especially if there’s a fight. I suppose there’ll be an awful lot of blood to clear up. We won’t hear anything until he comes back.”
Banac made an uninterested sound and flopped back down on the bed. It was all very well telling him not to worry, but words would not still the churning, restless feeling in his stomach.
“Do you want some food?”
Banac shook his head. The nausea was still there, and the thought of food made his stomach turn.
They did not speak for a while. A bell rang out, four times. Banac wondered where Berethel was now — whether he had found the meeting yet, or whether he would return with a stern face and sharp reprimands and throw Banac out for wasting his time. He strained for the sound of hoof-beats on the road, ignoring Elwaen’s exaggerated yawns of boredom as the minutes ebbed away, until he could almost imagine that they were actually there, that he was actually hearing horses clopping into the courtyard; and it was only when Elwaen jumped up with an excited shout that he realised he was not imagining the sound at all, but that it was real, and he leapt up and followed after her, bursting out on to the balcony with his heart racing.
A troupe of mounted men was streaming through the gate, their horses milling about in the torchlit courtyard. Dwaeremer servants attended them, taking the reins as the riders dismounted. Banac scanned the group wildly, looking for Berethel’s face, hoping for a smile of congratulation, but what he saw instead made his heart stop and his head swim.
It was Father, looking up at him and smiling; and Balor too, waving from his place on the horse behind Father. Suddenly Banac’s legs gave way, and Elwaen reached out to support him before he collapsed. But he waved her away and turned and stumbled drunkenly towards the stairs, taking them two at a time and missing the last three so that he tumbled head over heels. He did not heed the pain, but scrambled to his feet and lurched into the yard, and looked around wildly and found their faces, and sprinted towards them, and clashed in a wild, furious embrace, all three of them collapsing in a heap on the ground in the middle of the noise and bustle. And they did not care that men stared at them, or that Berethel regarded them with a look of dignified amusement, or that Delan the manservant tutted and muttered under his breath.
For they had found each other at last, and they were a family again.
For a while Banac’s heart was a ball of emotion so intense that he could not contain himself, and Balor was much the same. They babbled and wept and laughed in equal measure, their words tumbling out uncontrollably as they tried to share everything that had happened to them since they had been separated. Neither one was really listening to the other, and neither one made any real sense, but it did not really matter. They were overcome with the joy of seeing each other, and finding each other alive and well, and for now nothing could come between them.
Father watched them, silent tears on his face as he clasped them to his body and listened to their chatter. They talked to him and to each other at the same time, their voices fighting for supremacy, and Father basked in the sound like the happiest man alive, a broad smile fixed permanently to his face.
At first they stood in the darkness, but when all the horses had been taken care of Delan came to usher them inside, and it was only then that they realised they were alone, and that everyone else was gone. The dwaeremer led them into the house to a large dining room where Berethel’s family were already seated at a long table laden with food. Berethel himself was not there, and Aela excused her husband while he washed and changed, for he was still smeared with the sweat and dirt of the evening’s business. Father bowed and accepted her words graciously.
“Your husband is the best of men,” he said. “And now I see his wife is among the most beautiful of all women.”
Aela laughed, a light, silvery sound. “And you have the tongue of a prince, master Beorod,” she said. “You should have been a courtier in Padascel, not a rough fisherman!”
Father noticed Elwaen sitting to one side, pouting because she was not getting any attention. He bowed to her also. “And this must be your daughter,” he said. “Truly she is a star amongst stars, and a princess amongst princesses. What name is given to such a star?”
Elwaen blushed, and immediately forgot her bad temper. “Elwaen,” she muttered shyly. Father smiled and took her hand, which he pressed to his lips.
“Then ‘Elwaenarin’ you shall be called: Elwaen the Star. And may the princes of a thousand kingdoms fall at your feet.”
Banac and Balor looked at each other in astonishment. They knew Father had a way with words, but they had never heard him speak so eloquently in their lives. But then, this was a night of miracles, and nothing seemed amazing for very long.
They sat around the table, and a minute later Berethel joined them from a side-door with his hair wet and his face shining. He was dressed in clean clothes that hung loosely on his lean frame, and he greeted them all formally. Banac bowed, and Balor was sensible enough to follow suit, and when the introductions had all been made Berethel stood at the head of the table and blessed the food in the name of Iescwd. Then they ate, and talked, and the conversation was very polite and contained hardly any mention of the events of that night; though Banac was burning to know more of what had happened and how Father and Balor had come to meet Berethel. But he knew that information would wait until he and Balor were alone, and so he politely answered Aela’s questions about the village and his upbringing, and described Mother to her as if she was a queen to rival all the queens upon the earth, and made civilised conversation for the next hour.
When the hour was up, and the last of the food had been discreetly taken away by the swarm of servants that waited on them (another marvel, though Banac did his best to act as if such things were commonplace, so as not to give Elwaen the pleasure of looking down on him), Father remarked that he had a few things to say to Berethel in private. Berethel agreed, and when Father had hugged Banac and Balor tight and whispered to them to behave themselves the men left the room, and Aela suggested that the boys try to get some sleep.
“I know it’s been quite a day,” she said. “But you must be tired, and anything else can most definitely wait until morning. Elwaen, show them to the guest suite and let Delan know their Father will be staying in those rooms with them. Have water and towels prepared.”
Elwaen nodded meekly and led the boys out of the dining room in silence. When her mother was out of earshot, however, she rounded on them.
“So what’s going on?” she demanded.
Balor was alarmed by the sudden challenge. But Banac gave him a look that told him everything he needed to know, then turned to Elwaen and did his best to appear haughty.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business,” he said. “I tried to tell you how important Father was, but you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Elwaen shot back, her eyes narrowing. “You’re still just a fisherman’s son, and your father’s still a fisherman.” But she did not sound as sure of herself as she usually did, and Banac sensed her uncertainty.
“Who’s to say?” he said. “I could have just been telling you that to put you off the scent. He could be a prince from another kingdom for all you know.”
“Which kingdom, then?” she challenged, folding her arms and staring at him.
Banac blustered, and decided it was about time the conversation was over. “I didn’t say he was,” he defended himself. “I said he might be. But you don’t know what he is, so don’t go making assumptions.”
“I’ll assume whatever I like, thank you.” She stuck her tongue out, but at that moment Aela came out of the dining room to find them standing there. Elwaen’s tongue shot back into her mouth faster than a snake’s.
Aela pursed her lips disapprovingly. “I thought I said these boys should get some sleep,” she said. “They don’t look like they’re sleeping yet.”
“Sorry, mother.” Elwaen cast her eyes down. “We were just having a discussion.”
“I know what you were doing.” Aela waved an impatient hand. “Now do as I asked, please. And when the boys are settled go and find Gwyndael and get to bed yourself.”
Elwaen pouted, but she dared not argue with her mother. She kept her questions to herself as she led them upstairs to the bedchamber that had been prepared for them; though she shot them more than one curious glance, and Banac found a strange enjoyment in that curiosity.
She left them in the bedchamber without another word. There was an awkward moment in which they stood staring at the fine furnishings all around them. Then they looked at each other, laughed out loud, and quickly undressed for bed. They threw the dirty clothes in a pile in the middle of the floor and slipped into one of the two beds that had been prepared, snuggling up to each other beneath the pristine white sheets and marvelling at the softness of the feather-stuffed mattress, another marvel they had never known before that day.
Then they talked. They took it in turns, first Banac then Balor recounting in full everything that had happened to them from the moment Banac had walked down the valley towards the city. When they were finished Banac was by no means completely satisfied — he still had questions about the Scholar and Aedwyc, and what exactly had been happening in the cellars beneath the palace — but he could not ignore the fact that by now he was very, very tired. Balor was yawning at practically every other word, and when Banac found himself following suit he decided that the mysteries could wait another few hours and surrendered himself to sleep, snuggling up to Balor in the happy knowledge that they were safe now, and nothing could separate them.
And, outside their door, Elwaen sat breathlessly in the dark and wondered at everything she had overheard.
* * *
The Scholar was not a happy man. He paced restlessly to and fro in the corner of the tiny subterranean room to which he and Aedwyc had fled, his hands clasped behind his back and his head sunk into his breast, glaring at the floor.
Aedwyc sat in the opposite corner, as far away from him as possible. He was winding a length of bandage around his mangled leg, wincing each time it pressed against the open wound. He did not look at Iefor. He did not want to see what was in those eyes.
He had known Iefor for little over a year, and in that time had become familiar with his moods and tempers. He had seen him order executions with relish, seen him press hot iron into the flesh of women and children, seen him slit a man’s throat for having a disrespectful tone, or lay about with his tongue and his fists in a frenzied rage. But this — this was something he had not seen before. This was anger in such a pure, undiluted form, such an intensity of white-hot fury that, though he would never admit to it, for the first time in his life Aedwyc was afraid.
So he kept out of the way, and tended to his wound, and waited. They were waiting for visitors, who soon began to arrive in ones and twos: thieves, murderers, robbers, outlaws, haeg-dealers, all had been summoned by the one to whom they paid their debts, and to whom they answered about their unsavoury activities. Last to arrive was a huge, battle-scarred mountain of a man who looked around with narrow eyes and spoke little of the tongue of Padascel. He approached the Scholar immediately, and the two of the them retreated to a corner where they huddled and whispered for a while. Aedwyc saw a flash of gold as the man-mountain pocketed a handful of coins, then he shook the Scholar’s hand and left without another word.
The Scholar stamped over to Aedwyc’s corner. “Gather them up,” he said.
Aedwyc scowled, but he did not dare disobey. He struggled to his feet and limped theatrically around the room, ushering the visitors into a loose huddle around the Scholar. They eyed each other suspiciously. There were old feuds and unsettled debts between many of them, but they did not dare bring them up. Not here. Not now.
The Scholar waited until they had settled down into some semblance of order before he spoke. “Some of you,” he said, “may have heard the rumours concerning the beremer.”
There were dark mutters. One or two nodded.
“The rumours are true,” the Scholar continued. The mutters grew louder. “And I for one am disgusted that such an animal could ever have been allowed to infiltrate this glorious city of ours! I have called you here tonight to do something about it. We will flush this menace out, beat it into the open, surround it, and kill it!” He slammed his fist into his palm to emphasize his words, then glared around the room. “You are all in my debt. Some of you owe me your freedom, others your very lives. In payment of these debts, you will go out of here and gather up every filthy, mangy specimen of humanity over whom you hold sway, and you will send them out into the streets. Rouse the city! Let no man sleep in his bed! Make such a hue and cry that no-one can ignore it, and spread this word: I, Iefor, will pay ten gold coins to the man who brings me the beremer’s head!”
There were more mutters, this time of surprise. Heads turned as those assembled glanced at each other to confirm that they had all heard the same words. Already two or three had slipped out, intending to be the first to the hunt. Ten coin paid to the man who brought the head? No-one had said he had to be the one who took it in the first place. They each had their networks of lackeys and underlings, ragged armies of the dispossessed to be their eyes, ears, swords and knives, and each intended to make full use of them to get the reward for himself.
The Scholar smiled as he watched them go. He had always found the glint of gold to be more than effective in getting a difficult job done quickly. Larael had preferred the haeg, and that was up to him; the Scholar disagreed. Haeg was for pleasure. Gold was for business. He snorted as he thought of the prince. That boy had always been a fool, and naïve, despite all the privileges that had been afforded to him; now he would pay the price for his foolishness and naïvety. It was just a shame that his own access had been so much reduced because of it. No matter. He would find other avenues. He had time. Plenty of time.
As the delegates slipped away one by one they pushed past a late-comer, a big man who stooped beneath a thick cloak and hood. The man waited until they had all left, then pushed back the hood to reveal a face swathed in rotting bandages.
“They went with Berethel,” he rasped, bowing as low as he could. “Though the beremer was not with them. I followed them to Berethel’s house. They’re there now.”
“Then the beremer will not be far behind,” the Scholar said. “Go. Watch the house. I will send you word when you are to act.”
He waved a hand, and the big man bobbed his head and departed, drawing the cloak tightly about him.
“Aedwyc.” The Scholar beckoned and Aedwyc slouched over, still sulking. The Scholar smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Come, now,” he said. “Brighten up. We have suffered a setback, but it will not be for long. I swear to Iescwd and Ieofa that before this night is out that fisherman and his beremer will be dead. Now go. Czesig is bringing his men to the docks: that is where they are most likely to head when we flush them out. I want you to oversee the preparations there.”
Aedwyc nodded wordlessly and left, and the Scholar closed his eyes and sighed. So much trouble over so few. He would have to go away when all this was over, somewhere quiet where he could spend a month re-thinking all his plans.
He reached into his robe and drew out a silver box, absent-mindedly flicking open the lid and dabbing at the white powdered contents. When he saw how much was left he tutted. He could swear the stuff was going faster and faster these days. He would have to find another supplier, one who did not charge such exorbitant prices.
But worth every penny, he thought as it touched his tongue and the familiar warmth spread through his limbs.