Father nodded and leaned back in his chair. “Please.”
Berethel stood by the open window in his study, a glass of dark wine in his hand. They had been talking for at least an hour since dinner had ended. Father had done most of the speaking, Berethel interrupting him only to ask for clarification. Now Father had finished his tale, and Berethel was frowning as he turned it over in his mind.
“So,” the prince said, “you are no fisherman — at least, you are by profession but not by birth. Your father was a man named Beothol, a Scholar in the Royal College, into which institution you yourself entered at the age of fifteen. At the age of eighteen your father, this Beothol, introduced you to a gathering of like-minded individuals, men who shared political and religious beliefs, of which gathering the men of your family had for a long time been the leaders. Having been introduced, you were then taught their policies and aims, with the intention that you should one day succeed your father as their leader.
“But this group had, or has, many powerful enemies. Even some within the palace, you say.”
Father nodded. “Many, lord prince.”
“And it was these enemies who planned and enacted the execution of your father when you were twenty-two years of age.”
Father nodded again, but this time he said nothing.
“You fled the city with your wife and young child,” Berethel continued, “and vowed never to return. Instead you settled in a village by the Sea, taking the life of a fisherman. From there you conducted your affairs with your fellows at a distance, and kept your upbringing a secret from all but your wife and her father, with whom you lived. It was during this time that your … society, or whatever it is, decided to commence a dialogue with the beremen.”
“With one of the houses of Hereth-en-Aglar,” Father corrected him. “With a view to brokering peace between our nations.”
“Ah yes. Peace.” Berethel sighed. “A lofty ambition. But such peace has eluded us for generations, and we have not suffered for it. What need have we of it now, so suddenly?”
“We believe there is trouble coming, lord prince.”
“Can you elaborate on the nature of this ‘trouble’?”
“Not at present. Except to say that it is of a kind our kingdom has not seen since the days of the Oscemen,” Father said. “Again, I can only say more when I am sure of your support. But you must believe me in this. The danger is very real. You have my word on it.”
Berethel shook his head. “I cannot take your word,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for me, a prince, to take the word of a common man, no matter what claims he makes about his ancestry.”
“And what about the word of a prince?”
Berethel turned, and a look of horror and hatred flashed across his face. He backed swiftly away from where Haemel sat at the window, his white skin ruddy in the firelight. He reached for his sword, and when Father put out a hand to stop him he knocked it away and looked angrily between them.
“What is this?” he demanded. “Why have you brought this … this! into my presence without so much as asking my leave?”
“Please, lord prince.” Father put up his hands and moved between them. “Stay your anger for a few minutes, I pray. Do it for the sake of the service I have done you this night.”
Berethel glared at him, and behind Father’s back Haemel glared also. The tension in the room was palpable as the three men stood in deadlock. Berethel’s hand did not move from his sword.
“There is nothing,” he said at last, his voice low, “to stop me from ordering your deaths this very instant. Both of you! This is treason, you understand?”
“There is your mercy,” Father said. “And the mission on which this man comes to you. He has passed through water and through fire to stand before you tonight. Hear him out. Please. This is all I ask.”
Berethel looked between them, his eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down. Then he nodded curtly. “I will hear you,” he said. “But I can promise no more.”
Father bowed his head. “You have my everlasting thanks, lord prince.”
Berethel gestured for Haemel to enter the room, and he leapt lightly down from the window-ledge and stalked to the fire, where he stood looking between the two men. They were so different: his skin pale and cold, theirs warm brown; his hair straight and yellow, theirs tightly curled and so dark as to be almost black. His blue eyes were quick and agile, and they rested on Berethel for a minute before he spoke.
“My name is Haemel,” he said. “My father’s name is Haeleg. He is lord of his house, one of seven in our land. This makes me a prince among my people, my lord Berethel, and so I will presume to address you as an equal.”
Berethel said nothing, and his eyes did not move. Haemel continued.
“Some days ago I came to your kingdom to seek out my brother, Haemed, who had come in turn on an errand to this man.” He gestured to Father. “His errand was one of peace, but he was captured and cruelly slain by men of the same order as those you arrested this night. That matter is all but finished; I am here in my brother’s place to speak with you, at the request of Beorod, and I say this: You are not alone in your troubles. The gathering you witnessed this night is but one of many that have sprung up throughout both our kingdoms, and all practice the same rituals you saw, offering blood to their gods as a means of placating them. Such gatherings have been forming slowly over the course of many years now in the lands of my people, and we have our own means of dealing with them. It was only recently that my father was made aware that the same was happening here. The news came from the mouth of Beorod, who had come as the representative of his compatriots to begin to seek peace between our nations, in order to stand against this threat.”
He looked at Father, who nodded and took over the story. “At first we thought what we faced was merely a resurgence of the cult of the galac-men,” he said, “begun by country-side fanatics with an eye to establishing their own religion to oppose the new god brought by the Oscemen. But when the number of these groups increased we began to suspect another motive, darker, more sinister; and when we heard that the same was happening across the Sea we knew something evil was afoot that must be stopped. I decided to visit Haemel’s father, he being deemed the most likely to have sympathy for our cause, and when I had persuaded him at least to begin negotiations for peace between us he assigned his younger son, Haemed, as ambassador.
“So we began meeting in secret, exchanging visits every few months, gathering information from our respective kingdoms piece by piece. We knew the king would never give consent to such relations being established between our kingdoms — he is a man of tradition, and ever wishes to see the glory and supremacy of Padascel restored as it was in the days of the Oscemen — but we had high hopes for his successor, seeing him as a kind and fair man who would, we were sure, listen to reason.”
Father looked pointedly at Berethel, but still the prince said nothing. Father continued: “Alas, during those years your highness abdicated his right to the throne, and so the succession passed to your younger brother, who as you know is an altogether wilder and less principled man. We watched as Larael filled his house with wine and women, and listened as he spoke the same words as his father, describing the men of Hereth-en-Aglar as beremen, dogs, and less than dogs, and we knew that with such a man on the throne all our hopes of peace would be dashed.
“Worse news was to come. We heard rumour that the prince was himself an acolyte of the cult, and that he had instigated its practices even within the walls of Padascel herself. We investigated, but we could not break the wall of silence that surrounded his activities — though we continued to hear of strange disappearances within the city: dwaeremen and paupers, the ragged and outcast, those who would not be soon missed and whose absence would not be remarked upon once they were. I have since learned that while we were investigating we were also being investigated, and so Larael heard my name in particular as a promising young man within the ranks of our group, and he began to seek me out to extract information from me to further his own cause.
“At about this time, a year or so ago, the cult came to my own village, and I learned the methods by which it gains its followers. A Scholar — or an impostor posing as one, I still do not known which — going by the name of Iefor, began to attend the meetings of the menfolk of my village in which we gathered to worship one of the men’s gods from the old times. Over the course of weeks and months this Scholar attended our meetings, worming his way into a position of respect and authority in the village, and within our group of worshippers; and when he had gained the trust of every man there (excluding myself) he began to introduce his own practices: the covering of faces, the sacrifices, the holding of the meetings at the holy place near our village — and the taking of white powder which some men call ‘spice’, or haeg.
“This was the most sinister addition. We had not known such a thing in our village, but I had seen its use and effects during my years here in the city, and I knew well enough what it meant. I dared not speak against it, however, and I was myself forced into using it in order to maintain my cover and thus gain an insight into the workings of the cult. To a man we became slaves to it, and this Scholar used the haeg to ensure compliance to ever more sinister rituals. The men of our village will feel its effects for the rest of our lives, I fear.”
“Armed with the information Beorod was able to gather and pass to us,” Haemel said, taking up the story, “I and my brother began our own investigations among my people. We found much the same method being used: old religions were being infiltrated and subsumed by the new cult, and always the followers were under the influence of this haeg. What alarmed us most was that we were observing the spread of this cult on a huge scale: within most of the tribes of my people, and certainly throughout the length of your kingdom.”
“For a time we suspected Larael of being the man responsible,” Father said. “It made sense: he was the most powerful figure we had yet heard associated with the cult, and he had the influence and resources to be able to spread it so far and so fast. When the events of past week happened and Haemel was captured, naturally I took advantage of the situation and allowed myself to be arrested and brought to Padascel, in the hope that I might be able to penetrate the inner circle. What I found was not at all what we had expected. Larael himself expounded to me his purposes and desires, all of which were very much personal. He was concerned more with the standing stones he had found beneath the palace, and less with the principles of the cult to which he was attached. I believe this attachment was all Iefor’s work. He must have been part of the cult already when he came across Larael: a conflicted yet powerful young man, obsessed with the standing stones, in whom he saw the chance to have some real power on his side. He recruited him, and fed him scraps of information to keep him interested and eager; but at the same time I believe he used his new position of power for his own ends.”
“As when he had you arrested,” Berethel said. “Your name had been added to the warrant, most likely after it had been signed but before it was sealed. I suspected the fraud at the time, but had no way to prove it.”
“And you are sure Larael is not the one at the head of this?” Haemel said.
Father shook his head. “Of a part of it, maybe,” he said. “But no, not all. I believe he has his followers, more sympathetic to his aims than those of the Scholar, and most, if not all of them, here in Padascel — that part of it will dissolve now that he is in chains. The part that concerns us is what is left — the part the Scholar served, which is still spreading like a disease through our lands.”
Berethel folded his arms across his chest. “Then let me ask,” he said. “Why is it that we should concern ourselves with this? Men have ever enslaved each other under the guise of religion. What is one more false god in this world? Why can we not leave men to their natural madness?”
“Two reasons, lord prince,” Father said. “Firstly, because the aspirations of this cult are not spiritual, but rather political. The Scholar’s recruitment of your brother is proof of this. We must treat this cult as we would an invading force, for this is what it amounts to. We are being infiltrated, and there is no way of telling what will be the final extent of the infiltration. Whoever is behind all of this may have designs on the throne of Padascel itself. We cannot allow such a thing.
“Secondly, it is a religion of blood, and the means of conflict between our nations. Consider this: in our lands the priests of this religion preach hatred against the beremen and sacrifice them at the holy places; in the lands of Hereth-en-Aglar it is hatred against the men of Padascel that is stirred up. For what? These are not two opposing groups, nor even two opposing factions of the same group — rather, they are all one, and their aim is one: namely, to create discord between us, maybe even open war. This is no mere farmyard rabble — we believe it is the chief arm of a movement to bring both our nations into war.
“This is why we cannot ignore it, lord prince. Too much is at stake. Too much hangs in the balance. For years our people have worked in secret, always content to stand behind the throne; but now the time has come to have the ear of the one who sits on it. We come to you for help. We ask you to join with us, and lend the weight of your word and authority to our cause, for soon it will be your cause also, whether you will it or not.”
There was deep, thoughtful silence as Father finished speaking. Berethel was looking down at the floor with a deep frown on his face; Haemel was scowling from his place beside the fire. Father looked between them, sensing the delicate balance in the room. What Berethel said next would tip the entire future of their two kingdoms one way or the other: into peace, or to open war within a decade and thousands needlessly killed.
Berethel took a long time to make up his mind. The city bell tolled again, nine times, and Father realised that the sky was beginning to lighten outside. It was foredawn already. They had been speaking all night.
At last Berethel raised his head. “I cannot make a rash decision,” he said, and when Father opened his mouth to protest Berethel held up a hand, silencing him. “I did not say that I doubt you, master Beorod. I said that I will not decide now. These are matters too deep and dark for me to judge swiftly, and to give you an answer after five minutes’ thought would be foolhardy. I have been conduction my own investigations into these matters, and I have men I must consult before I can give you a firm answer. I will think on it more, and with your permission, prince Haemel, I will meet with representatives of your people at a later date. But remember well that I am not yet king, and though it seems I may now be forced to wear the crown, if I had my way I never would. All these things are to be done in secret, and none of them will have the seal of approval from the king. If word of this leaks out in any way, I will deny knowledge and leave you to your fates. Do you understand?”
Father and Haemel nodded. It was a better decision than Father had hoped for. He knew the prince was being generous with his trust.
“Lord prince.” Berethel addressed Haemel directly, but hesitantly. “I am sure you understand that generations of enmity between our peoples will not be forgotten overnight. Indeed, if a lasting peace is to be forged it will be our children’s children who will reap the rewards, not us. The peacemakers ever have the more arduous task, for men love war and hate peace, and it takes but one burning firebrand to scatter them. We will begin the work, but I need assurances from your folk also that their eventual aim is peace.”
Haemel nodded his agreement. “My father is like yours: old-fashioned and distrustful of change. He is a reluctant party to these negotiations, and I think it was mostly his love for Haemed that persuaded him to agree to them in the first place. With my brother gone it will fall to me to continue the task — but my father is old, and when he dies I shall take his seat, and maybe then we will be able to work more swiftly.” He looked at Father. “I myself have been a reluctant participant, but Beorod has a tongue of silver, and he has persuaded me of a better path this night. Let this be the first day of many in which the men of Padascel and Hereth-en-Aglar meet as equals.”
He kissed his hand and stretched it forth in the manner of his people, and seeing Berethel hesitate in confusion he stepped forward and placed it on the prince’s chest above his heart, and motioned for him to do the same.
“Thus we seal ties of marriage and adoption amongst my folk,” he said, and Berethel smiled grimly at him.
“I think we shall be brothers rough in play for a while yet,” he replied. Then he turned to Father. “Will you witness our agreement?”
Father nodded, and with that simple gesture they sealed the fate of the future of their kingdoms.
“We have struck a blow tonight,” Father said as Berethel poured a final glass of wine for them. “But it seems we have cut off the right hand only of the beast, and not the head as I had hoped. There are still thousands of acolytes spread through our lands — most of them ignorant of the true nature of what it is they worship, I think — and the man whose religion this is has yet to fall into our hands. Let us resist this corrupting and defiling disease while we can, and may we not fail in our determination.”
They drank to that, and when they had all sipped from the cup Berethel suggested they try to get some sleep. “You may stay with my family for as long as you wish,” he offered, but Father politely declined.
“I must return to my wife,” he said. “I cannot think what these days must have been like for her. She is sure to be worrying, and I must comfort her.
“And I must return to my people,” said Haemel. “I must bring my father news of his son.”
They nodded, sharing in his grief; then a knock at the door interrupted them. Berethel looked at Haemel, who nodded and slipped out of the window, then the prince straightened his shirt as best he could. “Come!”
The door opened, and Delan slipped inside and bowed. “My lord, we have a visitor.”
“Who is it at this hour?”
“An undesirable, lord.”
At the mention of the word Berethel frowned. “What does he want?”
“He wishes to speak with you. He says it is regarding a beremer.”
Father drew in a sharp breath, and Berethel’s frown deepened. “Very well,” he said. “Where is he?”
“In the courtyard, sire. I cleared my men from the area.”
“Good. Keep him at a distance. I will be out shortly.”
When Delan left Haemel slipped back through the window. He was scowling. “How does this man know I’m here?” he demanded.
“Maybe someone let it slip,” Father said, but Berethel shook his head.
“Impossible,” he said. “I had no knowledge of it myself until this hour, and the only other people who knew were you and your sons. Do you think …?”
“No.” Father’s reply was firm, and invited no argument. “Balor may have said something by accident, but I doubt it — Banac would never have let him.”
“I can vouch for that,” Haemel agreed. “The boy is the most trustworthy I have ever known. If a little proud.” He glanced at Father and his lip twitched in a smile, and despite the urgency of the situation Father found himself smiling back.
“I have no doubt it is hearsay,” Berethel said. “But I will listen to what this fellow has to say. Wait here.”
Haemel stayed in the room while Father and Berethel emerged on to the balcony in the cold foredawn air. The compound was dark, though torches burned from sconces dotted around the walls, and the shadowed figure who stood below them could hardly be seen. He was a big man, or had been once: now he was crippled, and stooped permanently to one side. He was swathed in yards of filthy bandage over which a torn cloak had been cast in an approximation of a disguise. But there was no disguising the decaying state of his body. They could hear the sound of his breathing, harsh and rattling in the darkness.
“What is it?” Berethel called down. “What do you want? Speak, man!”
The man tried to lift his head, and firelight caught on the rags that covered his face. “My lord prince?” he said. “Is that you?”
“It is the prince Berethel who speaks, yes. Now state your business and be quick about it.”
The man bobbed in an attempted bow. “Yes, my lord prince. I’m sorry, your ever-so-highness. I’m but an ‘umble man, lord prince, and not worthy to speak before ye. But I have grave news, lord prince, such as was meant for yer royal ears to ‘ear immediate, and without any delay.”
“Then say it,” Father snapped. “And with less perfume to your words.”
“Yes, yes.” The man bobbed again. “That’s it, m’lord. Less perfume, right enough. It’s news, lord prince. News of the gravest kind. There’s talk spreading through the city, your worship, talk of beremen. They say there’s one ‘ere now.” He paused, as if expecting someone to agree with him, and when no-one did he continued. “They say it’s under yer roof, lord highness. That it’s passed yer doors and sups yer wine. There’s folk who’s gettin’ jumpy at this. Some folk’s getting angry. They want to know what’s what. Just gossip, I’m sure, your high worshipfulness. But I thought an honest citizen should be the one to tell yer, and as that’s what I am I came here to do so, and may Iescwd be my witness that I never told a lie.”
Father and Berethel looked at each other, and Father felt his stomach sink. “The Scholar,” he said, in a low voice their informant could not hear. “It has to be. This is his last stroke. He has leaked word of Haemel’s presence in the city in an attempt to trap us, and if we do not act soon we will be caught like rats.”
“What do you propose?” said Berethel.
“I’ll talk to Haemel. But whatever happens I think we should leave. Now. This city’s going to turn into a mob if this news spreads, and then Haemel won’t have anywhere to go.”
He turned and went back into the study, intending to relay what had been said, but Haemel was already standing close to the door.
“I heard it all,” he growled. “The Scholar.”
“Yes,” Father said. “I’m sorry. I should have let you—”
“No.” Haemel interrupted. “You did the right thing. This meeting was more important than one bitter man.”
“So what do you want to do?”
Haemel considered this for a moment. “It could be a trap,” he agreed. “That Scholar is clever. He could he trying to flush us out into the open.”
“I don’t think we have much of a choice,” said Father grimly. “In another ten or twenty minutes the streets outside this place will be crawling with angry men asking questions, and if I know Iefor he will find a way to get them in here. You can’t hide from a thousand eyes forever.”
“I can go to the sewers.”
“No.” Berethel came back into the room. “When word spreads I will be forced to send out search parties, and the first place they will go to is the sewer. The chances are that someone will find you, no matter where you go.”
“Then I will fight!” For a moment Haemel’s eyes flashed, and he was a beremer again, vicious, dangerous.
But Father shook his head. “You need to get out of this city, Haemel,” he said, calming him. “You need to return to your land and speak with your father. You have other lives on your conscience now, not just your own.”
“I agree with Beorod,” said Berethel. “We will ride down to the docks, now, before the crowds are properly gathered. We will go in full regalia, and men will think I am responding to the rumours. You will be with us, Haemel, disguised as one of my own men, hidden in plain sight. I have a boat you can take out of the city and downriver to the Sea. From there you can cross to your own lands.”
Haemel hesitated, then nodded his agreement.
“Good.” Berethel clapped his hands together. “We must leave immediately. Go and wake your sons, Beorod; but tell them as little as possible.”
“That’s all right.” Father smiled sadly. “I’ve been lying to them for years now. Another lie won’t make much difference.”
“I pray that one day you will be able to tell them the truth,” Berethel said. “Now go. We must hurry.”