The sounds of battle receded as Banac pounded down the muddy streets in the miserable rain, following after the sound of the Scholar’s footsteps. The Scholar ran in terror, thinking it was a soldier behind him, bringing him his death.
At first Banac could not see him; he only heard the sounds of his flight. They twisted this way and that down muddy alleyways and narrow streets, kicking up the mud with their feet. Banac was already tired, and the clinging mud tired him even more, smothering his feet and weighing them down. Then he glimpsed the hem of a black robe disappearing round a corner, and the sight spurred him on. He ran with his head down and his arms pumping, gaining on his quarry.
He caught up with the Scholar in a muddy yard behind the warehouses. The Scholar drew out his sword and turned to face his pursuer, but he fell to the ground as Banac leapt on him like an animal and began to beat at his face with his small fists. He screamed in rage as he laid into the old man’s face, pouring out all the hurt he had suffered over the past days; and when his arms ached and his fists bled he scrambled off the Scholar’s body and picked up the sword from where it had fallen to the ground.
“Get up!” he yelled, levelling the point at the Scholar.
The Scholar looked up at him, recognition dawning in his eyes. “Banac!” He struggled to rise to his feet, but he kept slipping over in the mud, and in the end he sagged down and raised his hands in surrender. “Banac!” He shook his head. “Banac. Please. You’ve won. You’ve beaten me. It’s enough. It’s over.”
“It’s not over!” Banac spat at him. The rain was falling harder now, pattering into the mud all around them. “It’s not over!”
“When is it ever over, Banac?”
“It’s over when you’re …” Banac struggled with the word. “When you’re dead! When you’re dead!”
His hands shook, and he struggled to hold the sword steady. It was the same sword he had taken from the village, the sword he had used to cut through the brambles in the forest, the sword Haemel had used to kill the galac-men, the sword that had been taken from him when he was captured. It was heavier than he remembered, but perhaps that was just because he was so very, very tired. He blinked water from his eyes and shook his head to clear them.
The Scholar saw the tiredness in him, saw the sword point wavering, and he lowered his hands and spoke softly. “Come, now, Banac,” he said. “You don’t want to kill me, do you? I’m an old man — what harm can I do? And you’re just a boy. You’re not a killer! You’ve never brought death to anyone. Think what you’re doing, Banac! Think of your mother! What would she say if she could see you now?”
“Shut up!” Banac barked, but his heart was not in it. He tightened his grip on the hilt and took a step forwards. The Scholar leaned back as the point jabbed towards his throat, but he was smiling.
“It’s all right,” he said soothingly. “I understand. You’re angry. It’s only natural. I think I would be angry too. But there are other ways to settle this. There are other ways to bring justice. How about I come back with you to your prince? I could be your prisoner. Wouldn’t that be fun!”
“This isn’t a game!” Banac took another step forwards, and the point of the sword touched the Scholar’s skin. “I know you now. I know what you’ll do if I let you live. You’ll just come back again. You won’t stop. So I have to stop you. I’m going to stop you now.”
The sword stopped wavering, and there must have been something dreadful in Banac’s eyes, for the Scholar’s smile vanished and his face fell.
“Banac …” he said, fear in his voice for the first time. “Don’t do this …”
Banac shook his head. There were tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. “I have to,” he said huskily. “I have to. I’m sorry.”
“No you don’t, Banac. No you don’t.” The Scholar’s words tumbled over each other now, pleading, cajoling. “You’re just a boy. You’re not a killer.”
“But you are!” Banac shouted. “You killed them all — Arath, Cafor, Hafod … you killed Hafod, and he didn’t even do anything to you! He was just lonely, and scared, and he was unlucky enough to look a bit like me — and when you didn’t need him you killed him, you killed all of them!” He was screaming now, his voice hoarse, his mouth misshapen with the sobs that wracked him. “You didn’t even know their names! How could you do that?”
“Shut up! Just shut up!”
“No!” he shouted, sobbed, cried, pleading with whichever careless god looked down on him. “No! I have to! I have to!”
“No you don’t—”
“Yes I do!” He was pleading with himself now, horrified at the thought of what he must do, but he knew he must, otherwise it would never end. He raised the hilt of the sword and clamped his lips together and clamped his hands tight so that they hurt, and the Scholar looked up in horror as he saw death in Banac’s eyes, and Banac readied himself to strike —
They both jumped, and the Scholar closed his eyes as the sword point tickled his throat; but it did not plunge in to end his life. Instead Banac turned his head to see Haemel standing at the yard’s entrance. He had thrown off his helmet, and stood with his yellow hair cascading down onto his blood-stained uniform. He held his hands out as he stepped slowly towards them.
“It’s all right,” he said, his rough voice growling through the rain. “It’s over, Banac. We’ve won. We’ve won.”
Banac shook his head. “No. Not yet. I just have to kill him.” His voice shook and his breath came in shudders, and tears mingled with the rain that streamed down his face. “Just once. Then it’ll be over.”
“No,” Haemel said. “You don’t have to. You can let him live.”
“But you wouldn’t would you? I know about you! Balor told me! He told me how you killed those men in the sewer!”
Haemel nodded. “And I’ve spent my whole life killing men,” he said. “And now I’m old and bitter, and my soul is dyed red with their blood. But it has done nothing for me, Banac. I have a claim on this man’s life, too. He killed my brother — he killed Haemed — and I was going to kill him in return. But now I know that was wrong. I have learned that we cannot take life for life, Banac, or else the world will drown in blood. Please. Please listen to me.”
But Banac was not listening. He turned back to the Scholar and drew back his arm to strike. “I have to,” he whispered, looking into the old man’s eyes. The Scholar seemed to have shrunk somehow. His swagger and arrogance had gone, and he looked up at Banac with fear and trembling. He raised a thin, veined hand.
“No. I can’t.” The words would hardly come out.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry …”
It was one word — that was all — but it was enough to make the feeling flee from Banac’s arm, and he dropped the sword from nerveless fingers and turned to face the person who now stood with Haemel. It was Father, and there was no anger in his face, only love. He held out his arms, inviting him, pleading him with his eyes, and that one look did what no amount of words could do. It broke Banac, and drove the blood-lust from him, and he fled to Father’s arms and buried his face in his chest, and wept, and Father stroked his hair and whispered words of love into his ear, and the Scholar lay forgotten in the corner.
They took Banac back to the harbour, where Berethel’s men were clearing up the mess and removing the bodies, and when Balor saw him he ran to him, and they hugged fiercely.
“What happened?” Balor said. “Why did you run off like that?”
Banac shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
They watched as the Scholar was led before Berethel and forced to his knees. The prince looked down at him in disgust. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” he said.
The Scholar looked sullenly up at him, but said nothing. Berethel made a noise in his throat and waved at his men, and they hauled the Scholar to his feet.
“Lock him up,” Berethel said. “And keep him there until he talks to you.”
As they dragged the Scholar away Father turned to Berethel. “Do you think he knows anything useful?”
“He may do, or he may not,” Berethel admitted. “But I think a prison cell will be a better place for him than the streets of this city, or anywhere else for that matter. We will keep him there for a long time. You need not fear him again.”
“And what about the Baron’s son?”
They looked over to where Aedwyc was being held with the other mercenaries who had survived the battle. He was glaring sullenly at everyone, and complaining that his bonds were too tight.
Berethel sighed wearily. “He is the son of a Baron,” he said. “And thus he is above common law. We will put a price on his freedom, which his father will doubtless pay, and we will release him and let him return to his home.”
“That is a bitter outcome,” Father said.
“It is a bitter world,” Berethel replied.
Berethel’s men were busy readying the boat that would take them home. It was a long, slender craft, made for traversing the canal’s narrow passage but also strong enough to brave the Sea if needed. It was mostly open deck, with a space below for storing goods and supplies, a small cabin at the back big enough for a man to stoop in, and behind the cabin a tiller’s perch from which the boat was steered. The boat had oarlocks and long oars stowed below, a hole amidships where a mast and sail could be raised, and curious curved hooks fixed at the prow and stern which, Delan explained to Banac and Balor, were used for navigating the canal.
The dwaeremer had softened a little in his attitude towards them (though he was still tougher than old leather). When the time came for them to part he cuffed them gently with his knotted hands.
“Take care of yourselves,” he cautioned them. “And don’t get into any more mischief.”
They nodded and promised they would and wouldn’t, and then started to make their way along the quay to where Father and Haemel were waiting for them. But before they had gone far Delan called Banac back again, and after making sure they would not be overheard he reached into his shirt and pulled out a slender silver chain with a silver pendant in the shape of a star dangling from it.
“A gift,” he said shortly. “From her ladyship.”
Banac knew who he meant, and he blushed as he received the gift. Delan smiled to see the blush, then he put his finger to his lips. “Quiet now,” he said, and winked, then ushered Banac away.
Nobody asked about the gift, though Father eyed it curiously, and when Banac hung it about his neck he tucked it out of sight, though he could feel it cold against his skin. The touch reminded him of the torc, and he hesitantly asked Haemel what had become of it.
In reply Haemel rolled up his sleeve, and a familiar shiver went down Banac’s spine as he saw the torc clasped about his bicep.
“And what about yours?” he said.
Haemel shrugged. “I sold it for passage into the city,” he said. “It will be melted down, I suppose, and used to buy bread and ale, and soon the coins that are made from it will be scattered throughout the kingdom. They will be lost, stolen, bartered, found, traded and gambled away, and the smiths of my father’s house shall make another torc for my first-born son, if I have one.”
Then he did something that caught Banac entirely by surprise. He grasped the torc and pulled it down and over his wrist, then held it out.
“Here,” he said. “I think that this is rightfully yours.”
Banac shook his head. “I can’t take it. It belongs to you. Give it to your son.”
“No,” said Haemel. “I could not. Keep it, in memory of me and my brother. You were the last person of any worth to see him on this earth. That is something precious among my people. I insist you take it.”
Banac took it, feeling the familiar weight again. It felt part of him now, as if it belonged with him. He slid it on to his arm, then hesitated before he spoke again. “I thought … it was a magic torc, when I first found it,” he admitted, and Haemel laughed, though not unkindly.
“Magic?” he said. “Hardly. Magic rings and magic torcs and magic swords are the stuff of bards’ imaginations. The only magic I have known is the tricks the cruel and powerful men of this world use to blind the minds of the weak and foolish. Beware of that which men call ‘magic’, Banac. Trust yourself only, what you can see with your eyes and touch with your hands. This is wisdom.”
Banac nodded, but in the back of his mind was the image of a ring of standing stones in the forest, and the pressure in his head, and a dark-haired woman in a sunlit glade. But he said nothing to Haemel about it, and they were soon ready to leave.
Berethel bade them farewell from the quayside, shaking Father’s hand earnestly and also crossing palms with Haemel. The soldiers murmured amongst themselves to see their prince showing such a sign of friendship to a beremer, and Berethel grinned wryly.
“See how long it will take to mend?” he said. “They fought alongside you, but still they will not trust you.”
“They are men,” said Haemel. “And so are my folk. And men can learn.”
“Let us hope they will,” said Berethel.
They waved good-bye, and Berethel winked to the boys, and then they were steering the boat towards the narrow arch in the city wall where the lock was open to receive them. They waited while one set of gates was closed behind them and the other was opened a crack in front of them, and the water drained out and lowered them down, then they pushed off and glided down the tunnel towards the arch of light at the other end. Half-way down the tunnel Father and Haemel leaned over the side of the boat and pulled up a dripping wet length of rope, which they threaded through the fore and aft hooks and began to pull on, and so they propelled the boat along the canal and into daylight.
As they left the city Banac and Balor looked to their left, seeing the slums and the side of the valley rising beyond them. Balor said he could see the copse where they had stopped before going down to the city, but Banac knew he could not. There were hundreds of such copses dotted all along the valley, and Balor’s certainty was nothing more than his imagination. But he let him think it, because it made him happy. Behind them lay the city, her white walls rising stern and imposing, and at the very head of the valley the shining Citadel sitting in the lap of the mountain, and the white tower of the Royal Palace rising bright against the grey rocky face with the banner of the king hanging limply from its tip.
The rain had ceased, and the clouds were thinning, letting a weak stream of sunlight through that took the edge off the morning chill. As the four of them looked back they each harboured different memories. Father thought of the standing stones still hidden deep beneath the palace, and the report he would have to write up once he arrived home; then he thought of his wife, and a warm glow spread through him at the thought of seeing her again, and he prayed to Cafan that she would be safe and well. Balor thought of the Citadel, and wondered if he would ever see it again, and also whether the boy whose uniform he had stolen was all right; and he asked Cafan not to let him get into too much trouble, because it hadn’t been his fault. Haemel thought of the Scholar, still alive but imprisoned behind iron bars, and he sent up a prayer to his gods that the soul of his brother would be received with honour in the halls of his fathers, and that he would find peace in the life beyond this life.
And Banac. Banac thought of the Scholar also, though these thoughts were vague and grey, and left a foul taste in his mouth. He put them aside and instead thought of Elwaen, fingering as he did so the pendant that lay against his skin beneath his shirt. He wondered if he would ever see her again, and he hoped that he would. But he sent up no prayer, and the thought did not even occur to him. Instead he sat and watched as the city became smaller and smaller, and the sounds of its bustle and business faded beneath the buffeting of the wind, the ripple of the water, and the slap and grunt of Father and Haemel hauling on the rope that propelled them down the canal towards the river.
There was another lock where the two waters joined, and the men jumped out and manned the gates while Banac and Balor used the oars to make sure the boat did not hit the sides. When they were through there was another short channel, then the wide, swift-flowing river beyond, and when they had slipped into its flow the banks began to slide by at once as the current carried them down towards the Sea.
Father took the tiller, standing tall and straight with a look of peace on his face as he eased them gently downriver. The current was strong, for the river had come a long way from its source, and it bore them swiftly. Haemel and the boys were left to rest, Haemel hiding his white skin under a blanket, and they all soon fell asleep in an untidy pile on the deck, worn out in body, spirit and mind, while Father watched them and sang soft songs to himself.
Banac woke once, when Father and Haemel changed places, and he saw that the river was very wide indeed, and that it widened out still more ahead of them, and he smelled the familiar salt tang on the air and he knew they had come to the Sea. He raised his head, curious to see this meeting of current and tide. On either side were wide mud-flats, grey and brown, cut through by many rills and ragged with long sea-grass that bowed in the wind.
A small huddle of houses was perched on a spit of dry land that overlooked the estuary, a nameless fishing-village much like his own. As he looked, a boy about his age ducked out of one of the houses and stood staring at them as they floated by. At first Banac wondered why he stared, then he realised what a rich craft they were aboard, and how fine it must look as it cut through the water, and how much the boy must have wondered to see Haemel taking his place at the tiller, his yellow hair streaming wild in the breeze.
Banac smiled, then raised a hand and waved, and after a second the boy waved back. They slipped by, and the village shrank behind them as they met the first of the swelling waves; though the boy stood and watched them, and Banac watched him, until they had passed out of sight and could see each other no more.
Father raised the mast and the sail, and Banac helped him, and when the wind caught the white sailcloth the boat shuddered as if elated to be riding in the arms of the elements again, and ploughed on with fresh energy. Then Banac slept as the boat rose and fell on the endless succession of the waves, and they sailed eastwards to the shores of Hereth-en-Aglar.
Haemel waited until he was sure Banac was asleep, then rose and wrapped the cover around his thin frame and went to stand with Father at the tiller. For a long while neither one spoke. They watched the rise and swell of the grey sea, and the scudding of the grey clouds, and listened to the slap of the waves and the buffeting of the wind.
“Why did you not tell him everything?” Haemel said at last.
“Berethel?” Father shook his head. “He is not ready. Not yet.”
“Will he ever be ready?”
“I think so. One day. He will be a useful ally.”
“You should wait to see what the Hermit has to say about it before you start making predictions. Have you made your report to him yet?”
“Calwyd has passed word to Helm.”
“I don’t trust Helm.”
“No-one does. That’s why he’s so good at what he does.”
“And the stones?”
“They will be protected. Helm will make sure of it.”
Haemel grunted, and turned away and looked out across the sea, as if by looking he could bring his country closer.
“What was it all for, Beorod?” he said after some time.
“All of this. Everything that has happened these past days. What have we achieved?”
Father shrugged. “We have replaced the heir to the throne of Padascel, and we have gained his ear.”
“How else would you have done it?”
“A quick knife in the night-time for the brat, and reasonable words for his brother. He would have listened. There was no need for any of this.”
“We do not get to decide what fortune sends us. We must make the best of what we get. You were not to know that you would be captured; I was not to now that the Scholar would add my name to that warrant. But it happened, and we have made the best of it.”
“You mean you have. I have gained nothing from this except a dead brother.”
Father did not reply. There was nothing he could say.