Banac opened heavy eyes and struggled to sit up. He was tired — so very, very tired. He felt like he had not slept in weeks. Father bent over him in the darkness, smoothing his hair.
“We have to go, Banac. Wake your brother.”
Banac shook his head, still half in sleep. “Go where?”
“Just wake your brother and get dressed,” Father said, then he slipped out of the room.
Banac yawned. His arms were as heavy as two logs, and his whole body just wanted to lie back in the downy bed and drift off again; but the urgency in Father’s voice was enough to stir him. He reached over and shook Balor’s shoulder.
“Balor,” he said. “Hey. Wake up.”
It took a few minutes to wake him, mainly due to Balor’s determination to stay in the warm comfort of sleep for as long as possible, but eventually Banac managed to rouse him with a splash of cold water to the face and he rolled out of bed with a gasp.
When Balor had calmed down they started to dress, leaving their filthy clothes in a corner and pulling on new outfits Father brought for them. Banac noticed the look of worry on his face, but he said nothing.
“These belong to the servants,” Father said as they struggled with the trews, shirts and jerkins. “They might not be the best fit, but they’ll do better than what you were wearing.”
The clothes fit better than they expected, although Balor had to roll his up at the wrists and ankles; and when they were ready Father ushered them out of the bedroom and into the courtyard.
There they found a hive of activity. The horses had been brought out again, and more of the dwaeremer servants were swarming around them, tightening buckles and checking straps. A squad of ten armoured men stood to one side, waiting patiently while Berethel dashed here and there, giving orders and receiving information.
As they emerged into the torchlight an eleventh soldier made his way across the courtyard to meet them.
“Good morning,” he said, and for a moment neither Banac nor Balor recognised him; then he pulled up the hinged face-plate that had been clumsily attached to his helmet and they saw a white face and blue eyes. Haemel nodded at them both, and his mouth gave the twitch that was his version of a smile.
“Banac,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re well.” Banac nodded in reply, unsure what he should think of Haemel now that he had heard Balor’s story; but Balor, it seemed, had forgiven and forgotten, and indeed his most vivid memory was of Haemel’s rescue in the cellar beneath the palace, and so he smiled shyly when Haemel greeted him.
“But why are you dressed up?” he said, touching the chain armour that clinked beneath Haemel’s blue surcoat. “You’re not a soldier.”
“He is for now,” Father said. “We’re leaving, and we don’t want people to know he was here in the city, so the prince is going to ride us down to the docks and give us a boat so we can go home.”
Balor looked around nervously for Berethel — he still recalled the day in the village when he had arrested Father — but Father saw his expression and laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not arrested any more, remember? In fact, Berethel’s very impressed with what you’ve done — both of you.”
At the reminder of his great achievement Balor brightened up, and Father ushered them to one side while the last of the horses were made ready.
Berethel in discussion with Delan, their voices raised, so that the boys could clearly hear what was being said.
“No,” Berethel said in a firm voice. “You’re not coming. You need to watch our informant, and make sure he doesn’t get word to anyone of what we are doing.”
“May I remind your highness,” Delan growled, “that your life is my responsibility, and has been for many years.”
“You remind me almost daily, Delan. But this is not war. This is a trip down to the docks.”
“Through a baying mob with a beremer in your midst.”
“We’ll be fine! I am ordering you to stay. In fact, if it makes you feel any better I am ordering you to look after Elwaen, Aela and Berethor. They are your charges now. How’s that?”
Delan still did not look pleased, but he knew better than to argue any further with his lord, and he stumped away bad-temperedly, muttering to himself.
A hand touched Banac’s arm. He jumped, and turned to see Elwaen standing in the shadows.
“Don’t look at me!” she hissed. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Where are you supposed to be?” Banac asked.
“In my room, where else? That odious pig Delan’s going to come looking for me in a minute. What are you doing?”
“We’re leaving,” said Balor.
“Leaving? Why? Has it got something to do with the beremer?”
The boys looked at each other. “What beremer?” Banac said.
Elwaen laughed, and Banac felt strangely clumsy and stupid.
“That beremer, you idiot!” She pointed to where Haemel was waiting, his face-plate covering his distinctive features again. “It’s not much of a disguise.”
“So what?” Banac said, eyeing her up. “What’s it to you?”
Elwaen hesitated. “Is it really true … all those things you said?”
“What you were talking about before you went to sleep. All those adventures and things: lepers and dungeons and torture. Did they really happen?”
Banac did not answer her question. “You were listening in?” he said instead, his hackles rising.
“Of course I was,” Elwaen said blandly. “It’s my house, isn’t it?”
“It’s your father’s house.”
“It’s my house,” she repeated with a sniff. “And that means everything in it’s mine, and that means your conversation was mine. So?”
“So was it true?”
They looked at each other again, and Banac shrugged. “Yes,” he admitted.
Elwaen’s eyes widened. “Really?” she breathed. “Really truly?”
“I’m not a liar.” Banac defended his honour stiffly. “It all happened. And more.”
For a second Elwaen regarded him with wide eyes. Then, without any warning, she darted forward and planted a kiss on Banac’s cheek. “I … I think you’re very brave,” she blurted, and before Banac had time to realise what had happened she had turned and fled.
“Wow,” said Balor, watching her go. “Girls are crazy.” He looked up at Banac. “You’re going to have to wash that cheek.”
But Banac did not hear him. There was a strange ringing in his head that made all other sounds recede into a senseless babble. He stood with his hand pressed to his cheek, reliving that kiss again and again, and it was only when Father came to fetch them that the spell was broken.
They mounted up, Balor sitting in front of Father and Banac in front of Haemel on the tall horses. The boys looked down nervously, unused to being so high up on the lumbering beasts.
“You’ll be fine,” Haemel said in Banac’s ear. “Just remember to hold on with your legs, and don’t be surprised if you wake up tomorrow with buttocks that feel like they’ve been beaten with a strap.”
Banac nodded, trying to steady himself. He wanted a few more minutes to get used to the feel of the horse, but then Berethel swung himself into the saddle, barked an order to his men, and they all wheeled about and trotted in tight formation through the open gates and into the square beyond.
Clouds still hung low over the city, and though somewhere behind them the sun was struggling to rise, her beams could not penetrate the thick, grey blanket. They rode through the streets of Padascel in a gloomy twilight. The houses they passed were locked and bolted, and the shutters were closed; but though this part of the city slept they were all aware of a faint, rhythmic sound on the very edge of hearing, a low babbling that simmered in the distance and unsettled the horses.
“Keep a tight formation,” Berethel ordered. “If we meet resistance, ride through it.”
The soldiers closed ranks, keeping Father’s and Haemel’s horses in the middle of the group and clutching their short stabbing-spears in readiness.
Banac’s heart pounded. He glanced over at Balor, trying to reassure him with a look, but Balor’s eyes were scanning the side-streets nervously and he did not see it.
At first they were the only people about, and they kept to the main road as it wound back and forth down the valley away from the Citadel. Rain began to spit from the grey sky, adding to the depressing atmosphere. The soldiers put their heads down and tried to ignore the water that pattered on their helmets and ran down their shields.
One of the men had ridden ahead to scout the road. When the party was half-way down the valley he came riding back up to meet them. He brought bad news. A mob had gathered on the road, three turns down from them. It was a ragtag crowd, the scout reported, but there were some weapons to be seen and even some shields.
“This is the Scholar’s work,” Berethel said darkly. “He must have more influence in the city than I thought, to raise such a crowd so quickly. He’s trying to cut us off. Well it won’t work, by Iescwd!” He dragged on the reins, turning his horse suddenly towards one of the side-streets. “Follow me!” he cried, then kicked his horse forward into the narrow opening, and before Banac had a chance to realise what was happening Haemel had turned his horse also, and in a great rush the men plunged after him.
Banac remembered little of what came next. It was a desperate ride through the back-ways of Padascel, all of them struggling to keep up with Berethel. Haemel forced Banac’s head down, crouching over him to protect him from any overhanging beams or sign-posts, and so most of what he remembered was the sound of the horse’s panting, the chink and squeak of the bridle, and the thudding of hooves as they cantered after the prince. Now and again he raised his head and caught glimpses of ramshackle structures quite unlike the proud stone buildings that fronted the main road, and bleary-eyed folk leaping out of the way and goggling at the strange procession that crashed past their houses in the dawn; but mostly he closed his eyes and prayed for it to end.
Berethel led them down twisting ways sometimes only just wide enough for the horses to pass, and everyone had skinned knees and elbows before long. The prince was a daredevil, turning this way and that, making his way through the maze of back-streets with unswerving certainty. And always he led them down, down, down the valley. As they came to the lower end of the city they began to glimpse scattered groups of men at the ends of alleyways, furtive gatherings that scuttled away as soon as they were seen. But eventually the groups joined together and, emboldened by numbers, started to close in on them.
Still they rode, turning this way and that, until Banac was dizzy with it all. And then, just as he thought the mad chase would never end, they burst from between two warehouses and found themselves on a quay beside the harbour that nestled beneath the city wall.
The harbour of Padascel was small, but it was a miracle of engineering. It had been made by the Oscemen in the years of their reign, when the city had been a hub for traders moving across the empire; it was furnished with stone, and was continually fed by the waters that flowed down from the mountain and joined together in a rushing torrent in the brick-lined sewers, eventually finding their way through the pipes and channels down into the harbour. Great locks in the city wall dammed the water, and so there was a quiet pool beneath the city walls where boats could dock and unload goods.
With the collapse of the empire the traders had gone, and now the only vessels that plied up and down the canal between the city and the river were privately-owed, such as Berethel’s, or those belonging to the crown that ferried fish and other sea-made goods from the coast. They made a ramshackle collection, bobbing and knocking sullenly against each other, and the whole quayside stank of rotten wood and decaying fish.
But it was not the boats nor the smell they noticed as they came to a halt on the quay-side. For as they clattered out on to the stones by the water’s edge they were met by a wall of thirty overlapping shields that stretched from the warehouses to the waterside, barring their path. The shields bore no insignia, showing that the men behind them swore allegiance to nothing but gold: they were mercenaries, armed and armoured with the plunder of a hundred wars in far-off places, hardened men, killers for hire; and standing safely behind them, his white-bearded face sneering haughtily, was the Scholar.
“Fools!” the Scholar said when he saw them. His powerful voice echoed off the walls. “To think you could escape from me so easily!” He looked at each of their faces, then bowed low to Berethel. “Highness,” he said. “I am your undying servant.”
“If your are my servant,” Berethel replied, “then stand aside and call off these paid dogs. We have no business with you.”
“But I have business with one of your party,” the Scholar said, pointing a long finger at Father. “That man. He is a liar, and a scoundrel, and a traitor to the crown. He is a friend of beremen and a breaker of oaths, and I demand that he be turned over to my custody.”
“Demand?” Berethel raised his eyebrows. “Demand?” He roared the word, and his horse skipped nervously beneath him. “Who are you to demand anything from me, sir? I command you in the name of the king and in the name of Iescwd and Ieofa, stand aside! Or in god’s most holy name I shall cut you down!”
His eyes blazed, and a thrill went through Banac at the sound of his voice. The prince was imperious and commanding, his back straight and his bearing as royal as the most ancient of kings, and for a moment the Scholar hesitated. Then Haemel’s horse shifted, and the Scholar’s eyes darted over to him, and a second later they widened and he screamed and pointed his finger again.
“There!” he shrieked. “There is the beremer! The abomination of nature! The spawn of Scedan’s lair! The child of sin and the offspring of filth!”
“Hold your tongue!” Berethel snapped. “You have lost your wits, man? How dare you accuse my men of such things? If there were a beremer in my own city I should know of it. Now I will say this once, and once more only: stand aside and let us pass, or you shall have my sword to answer to!”
“In the name of Iescwd I shall not!” The Scholar spat on the stones, insulting the prince in the worst way he knew.
“So be it,” Berethel muttered. He gave a look to his men, and they dismounted and slapped their steeds so that they bolted away up the streets. Haemel lifted Banac down and ushered him to one side, out of the way.
“What’s going on?” Banac asked him. “Why don’t they just ride them down?”
“A shield-wall is one of the only things a horse will not ride through,” Haemel replied. “The prince must meet it with a shield-wall of his own, on foot, and try to break it.”
There was worry in his voice, and no wonder, for it did not take an expert in war to see that Berethel’s men were outnumbered three to one. They quickly formed their own wall, their shields, emblazoned with the royal crest, overlapping each other in a solid line so that each man defended his neighbour’s right-hand side. Luckily the quay was narrow, so there would be no chance of the Scholar’s greater numbers outflanking them, but the mercenaries were packed three deep, and would surely win if the fight came to a pushing-match between the two sides.
Father stayed with Banac and Balor, his arms wrapped tightly around them. He had been given a sword, but he would not take part in the battle. He would stay to protect his sons in the event that the worst happened. Balor looked away, but Banac found himself fascinated by the scene. A thrill went through him as he watched the men preparing themselves, and again he wished he could be in there with them. He looked at the faces of the enemy. They were a motley assortment, all shapes, sizes and colours, their arms and armour a ragtag patchwork but nevertheless deadly. Their leader was a bronze-skinned man-mountain with narrow eyes, who moved with the grace of a seasoned killer. But then he turned to someone else for confirmation of a command, and when Banac looked to the middle of the line to see who it was his blood ran hot as he saw the leering face of Aedwyc, clearly delighted at the prospect of slaughter.
The battle-lines were ready, and now they faced each other in silence, their shields tight and their spears levelled. This was the way in war: men would size each other up and summon the courage to charge their opponent, for it takes a brave man indeed who will run into a wall of wood and leather bristling with steel spear-points, and such stand-offs could last for hours. But not today. Today there was no time, and the men the Scholar commanded knew they could easily win. They advanced towards the prince’s line, stepping in unison, keeping their wall straight, and when they were twenty paces away they stopped again.
Berethel surveyed the line, weighing his chances in his head; the decision was not a hard one to make. As soon as they met in battle the sheer numbers of their enemy would crush them, and they would be pushed further and further back until their shield-wall broke and they were forced to fight for their lives. His men were well-trained, but some had not seen battle in many years and others had never been in a shield-wall in their lives. They would have to fall back.
But just as he was about to give the order a loud horn-blast sounded over the harbour, echoing off the city walls and reverberating in the confined space so that it nearly deafened them. Everyone turned as from a side-street behind them another force marched, more men in the royal blue uniform with spears and shields at the ready, twenty spears all told; and at their head rode Delan on a pony, his gnarled face twisted into a grim smile of satisfaction. He pointed upwards, and they all looked to see archers appearing on rooftops around the harbour, their bows nocked and taut and aimed at the Scholar’s mercenaries.
“Lord prince,” Delan growled, as his men rushed to reinforce their comrades. “Looks like you’ve got yourself into another bad situation.”
“Delan …” Berethel was smiling so broadly he could hardly speak. He searched for the right words. “Thank you,” was all he could say.
“You’re welcome.” Delan nodded. “After you left I had a word with that piece-of-filth messenger, and he squealed his plan to me soon enough. You should’ve given me five minutes with him earlier, and we could’ve avoided this mess.”
Berethel laughed, then reached over and folded the dwaeremer in a fierce hug.
“Then I am sorry,” he said. “And you shall have a reward when the battle is won.”
But the battle was not won, not yet. Their numbers were even, and now the prince had archers on his side; but the Scholar’s mercenaries had fought against their fair share of overwhelming odds and they were still spoiling for a fight. They began to grunt, their voices chanting in rhythm as they stamped their feet and shook their spears, preparing themselves for the charge they knew must come. Berethel called for his men to hold their positions, and they gazed back steadily at the grunting, stamping mass of scarred and grizzled warriors before them. Still the grunting continued, building and building, and one or two of those men raised their shaggy heads to the sky and howled like wolves, hoping to put fear into their enemies.
Then, so fast that Banac almost missed what was happening, Berethel barked a command and his men sprinted forwards, their shoulders against their shields and their spears lowered. At the same time the archers loosed their shafts into the Scholar’s ranks, and when the mercenaries raised their shields to ward them off Berethel’s men struck at full speed with a deafening noise of banging shields, ringing steel, and the screams of wounded and suddenly dying men.
The battle was brutal and ugly. The mercenaries had expected the usual posturing and cursing that takes place before the charge, and Berethel had taken them by surprise with his stolid silence and sudden, ferocious rush. The Scholar’s line wavered and broke, and the quayside turned into a rabble of killing as Berethel’s men left their spears in their enemies’ flesh and drew their swords to hack and stab. They hardly uttered a word, their intense discipline taking over and turning them into cold-eyed machines.
Except for Berethel. As soon as the shield-wall broke he rose up with a mighty roar that made Banac shiver, his bright sword sweeping out in the grey morning and falling like lightning on the heads of his enemies. He laid left and right with mighty blows that shattered shields and splintered bone, and men fled before him in terror like mortals before a god, and still he killed, and killed, and drove them into the water, and stamped them down into the stones; and though Father tried to cover Banac’s eyes, Banac pulled away and watched the slaughter with his soul singing and his heart rejoicing, his eyes fixed on Berethel. This was glory. This was renown. This was the field on which men were made and kingdoms were founded, and he revelled in it.
The mercenaries’ initial shock quickly abated. A band of them regrouped further down the quay and formed another shield-wall, from behind which their own archers began to loose shafts in the direction of the archers on the walls. Berethel led another charge on this wall, shield meeting shield again with with deafening, bone-shattering bang, and the men began to push at each other and reach over with their swords to stab at heads, eyes, throats: any target that presented itself.
Banac watched the battle avidly, his heart pounding in time to the sword-blows, wishing he could participate in such a glorious vengeance. Then a movement caught his eye, on the edge of the fray, and he saw a black-robed figure slipping away down a side-street. He recognised it instantly, and in a sudden surge all the rage for what the Scholar had done mingled with the lust of battle and boiled over inside him, and he threw off Father’s arm and ignored his shouts to come back, and raced after the Scholar with death the only thought on his mind.