Banac woke again as the boat jarred on gravel, and he sat up to find that they had come to the shore. They had grounded on a wide, flat beach, but it was of small stones rather than fine sand; and at its head was a dense line of dark green trees rising high overhead, far taller than the tallest trees Banac had ever seen.
Father and Haemel were standing at the prow, exchanging words. Banac could not hear what they were saying, but when the conversation ended they embraced like brothers, and for the first time Banac saw tears in Haemel’s eyes.
The men turned, and Haemel saw Banac was awake. He strode down the deck to meet him, clasping him in a rough hug that was clumsily tender.
“This is my home,” he said. “And I must go. Thank you, Banac son of Beorod, for all the help you have rendered to me. If ever you find yourself in my country in a time of peace you will be welcome in my house.”
Banac nodded, though his chest felt strangely tight. It was not right that Haemel should be leaving them, not after everything that had happened. He wanted to tell him to stay, to come back home with them; but he knew it was impossible. Haemel had his people, and he must return to them.
Haemel hugged him again, then he turned to Balor and shook him gently, smiling as Balor’s bleary eyes came into focus.
“What is it?” Balor said, raising his head. “Are we home?”
“I am,” said Haemel. “This is where we part ways.”
“Oh.” Balor’s face fell. “Do we have to?”
Haemel laughed softly. “Yes,” he said. “We do. That is the nature of life, Balor. We come and we go, and each meeting is sweeter than the last, and each parting more bitter. This parting, I think, is one of my most bitter yet.”
He hugged Balor then, and Balor clung to him like the child he was, and it was long minutes before they drew apart.
“Thank you,” Haemel said, and Balor’s small brow furrowed.
“For teaching me the value of gentleness,” said Haemel. “And for showing me that bravery is not always to be found on the point of a sword.”
“Oh. All right.” Something occurred to Balor. “Will you come back to see us?”
Haemel looked up at Father briefly, then shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows what winds of fate or chance may blow me back across this sea?” he said. “Maybe your god will see to it in his own good time.”
And with those words it was time for Haemel to go. He exchanged a last firm embrace with Father, then turned and leapt over the side, splashing through the surf towards his homeland, and Father turned away.
“We should go,” he said. “It’s dangerous for us even to be near these shores.”
He shipped an oar, turned the boat about, then rowed them back out into the swell. Banac looked back to see Haemel standing by the tree-line. He raised a hand in farewell, and Haemel saw it and raised his own white arm in return; then he slipped between the trees and was gone, and in all the long years of his life Banac never saw him again.
It was late afternoon by the time they finally saw the smudge of their own coastline on the horizon. They were all wide awake, and Balor was dizzy with excitement at the thought of seeing Mother again and telling her all about their adventures. He chattered constantly, but his words meant nothing to Banac and Father. They were both looking ahead in stoic silence, waiting for the first glimpse of the familiar houses, their hearts beating with the thought of returning home.
Their progress was agonizingly slow. The smudge turned into a line, which thickened into a darker line, which rose out of the sea inch by inch until it became hills and cliffs, which coalesced into the familiar bays and headlands, until finally their own wide bay hove into view and they saw the welcome sight of their village huddled on the shore. They all laughed when they saw it: laughs of happiness and relief, and Father burst into song and the boys joined in, all of them singing for the sheer joy of coming home again.
“Not long now,” Father kept saying, his eyes shining. “Not long now!”
Still, progress was almost unbearably slow. No matter how many minutes passed, the houses never seemed to come any nearer; but at last they began to make out tiny figures on the shore, and the boys tumbled to the prow and strained their eyes to see who it was. Was Mother there? they wondered. Was she looking out for them, hoping for them to return? Banac knew it was a foolish hope — if anything, she would be looking to the hills behind the village — but Balor was convinced he could see her, standing in the middle of the little group that was gathering by the tide-line, their miniature hands shielding their tiny eyes as they watched the strange craft draw nearer and nearer.
Soon they could hear the familiar thump and hiss of surf crashing on the shore, emerging from the general roar of the waves and the buffeting of the wind, and the sound made Banac’s heart thrill like never before. Never had he thought he would be so grateful to hear anything so mundane, so ordinary. But he was, because it meant they were almost home.
As they drew nearer, however, another sound reached their ears: thinner and weaker than the noise of the sea, but immediately arresting. It was the sound of a woman crying.
Suddenly the warm glow of anticipation drained from Banac’s chest. He looked back at Father, and saw his face was creased in a frown, and cold uncertainty wormed its way inside him. The figures on the shore were much nearer now. He could see them turning and speaking to one another, and even from a distance he could see the agitation in their movements and the weapons one or two of the men carried ready in their hands. Something was wrong. This was not the welcome he had imagined.
“What is it?” Balor said, always the last to pick up on such things. Banac waved at him to be quiet.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.”
So they waited, while the wind and the waves bore them ever closer to the worried knot of men and women on the shore, and the desperate sound of weeping crept into their ears and down to their hearts where it turned to dull, cold fear. Banac kept his eyes fixed on the shore, taking in everything, trying to understand what was so wrong — and it was only when they were a hundred yards out that he saw the second crowd of people clustered around a single house in the village, and then he saw that it was his house, and then a gust of wind brought the trembling cries across to them, startlingly loud, and a terrible feeling started to make its way from his heart to his belly, because he realised he could not see Mother anywhere.
There was a splash, and a cry from Balor. Banac spun round. Father had dived into the water and was pulling himself with powerful strokes towards the shore. Balor shouted at him to come back, but Father either did not hear him or was ignoring him, because he continued to swim without looking back.
There was a bitter taste in Banac’s mouth, as though he was about to vomit; and indeed his stomach turned, and he struggled to keep his balance. But he did not stand and stare; he dashed aft and took the uselessly-flapping tiller, and dragged it back round to bring them in to shore.
The last moments of their journey seemed to take an eternity, as the village grew closer and closer and yet remained just out of reach. Banac stared ahead, his eyes fixed on the crowd of people near the house. Everyone not standing on the shore was there, and they were all looking at something …
He tried not to think about it, and he gripped the tiller until his hands hurt.
He saw Father stagger from the waves, saw Elred running to meet him, saw Father stumble at Elred’s words and thrust him away, and his heart beat a mad tattoo in his chest. He willed the boat onwards, impatient at the wind and the waves which all seemed to be beating against him, until at last with a crunch the keel hit the sand. Already people were dashing down to meet them, and Banac was helping Balor down, who bit his lip and clenched his fist, and looked around with wide, scared eyes as he held Banac’s hand and stumbled through the breakers.
“What is it?” Banac demanded as they struggled up the beach. Elred was lumbering down towards them, and his huge bearded face was twisted as though he was in pain. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t,” Elred said, seizing Banac before he could go any further. “Don’t go that way, Banac.”
But Banac tugged away from him, and when Elred would not let go he was gripped by a sudden rage, an unnatural fury that made him wild and gave him animal strength, and he hissed and bit and spat at Elred, swinging his fists wildly until one of them connected with Elred’s bearded face. It was not a hard blow, but it startled Elred enough to make him lose his grip, and Banac fell to the ground and scrambled away into the village, his mind in a whirl of desperation and terror.
He ignored Elred’s shouts, ignored Balor’s cries, ignored the warnings of the villagers who tried to stop him as he sprinted up the beach towards his house. When they barred his way he drew the sword and waved it viciously at them, cursing and swearing, vowing to butcher them if they came near him; and the men and women who had known him all his life cowered back in stunned silence and fear as he passed through them like an adan of wrath.
Then he was standing at his house, and the people were drawing back, and he saw what it was they had been looking at.
Father held her. There was blood on him, smeared across his clothes, his hands, his arms, his face. He was trembling, shaking as though caught in a fever, and his eyes were so wide that the whites showed all around, and he was staring down at her, staring as though he could not believe what his eyes were showing him. And Banac stared too, though he wished ever after that he could blot that sight from his memory, and only when a hand touched him on the shoulder did he start and look away to find Grandfather standing behind him, his ancient eyes red with tears.
“Come away,” he said gently. He reached out and prised the sword from Banac’s grip, and Banac found he did not have any strength left.
“Come away,” Grandfather said again, and then Banac realised his legs could not hold him, and he collapsed to the ground, and then his mind decided it did not want to know what happened next and so it fled away and left him in darkness, and he knew nothing more.
Berethel arrived as the sun was setting, two hours later, bringing with him a contingent of sixty armed men. The villagers panicked when they arrived, and Elred and some of the other men took up weapons as if to attack them; but Berethel threw down his arms and knelt on the ground until Agwaen the Elder came from the long-hall to bid him rise, and then they went together into the long-hall where they stayed for half an hour, while the people waited in anxious expectation.
It was only many years later that Balor learned what had happened, but on that day in the council between Berethel and Agwaen the truth came out. Agwaen told Berethel how armed men had come to the village, their faces hidden behind leather masks, and had gone straight to the house where Mother was working. There they had killed her, while others kept the men of the village at bay, and before they rode out of the village one of them had tossed a scroll on the floor, saying it was a message for Beorod.
Berethel asked to see the scroll. The message was short, and read simply: “We made a deal. I am keeping my end.” It was signed by a symbol of two circles bisected by a vertical line. There was no name.
When Berethel had read the message he explained to Agwaen what had happened in the city, leaving out certain details. Then he repeated a report he had been given that afternoon from the men who had escorted his brother, the prince Larael, to his prison, telling how they had been attacked along the way, and Larael had escaped. The message had reached Berethel too late to do anything but ride to the village with his fastest horses, and to arrive long after his brother had come and gone.
Father was brought to Elred’s house, where he was washed and put to bed with a broth of herbs that would help him to sleep. Berethel assigned two men to watch the house, then he took his leave with the promise that he would return tomorrow to discuss with Father how he would to move to the city. Larael was still loose, he said, and the move was for Father’s own safety.
Banac and Balor knew of none of this. They were bedded down in a neighbour’s house, where they had been told to sleep. Balor cried himself to sleep asking where Mother was, but Banac could not rest. Even when night fell and the stars came out in a sky that was now free from clouds, he could not bring himself to close his eyes. If he closed them he knew he would only see her again, and he did not think he could bear it.
The night was long and dark, and Banac knew every minute of it. In the darkest hours he heard the sounds of people walking through the village, and the father of the family in whose house he lay rose up and left silently. He returned again an hour later, but Banac did not wonder where they had gone. He could only think of one thing, and when at last the darkness began to fade he rose himself and dressed in silence, then left the village and walked up on to the ridge of hills where he made his way northwards to the old valley and down the track to the standing stones.
He did not know why he went. It was a feeling, nothing more. All through the night he had been thinking about another night, a night which had suddenly turned to day. Now he felt a strange compulsion. He had to go. He had to get away from the village. He wished more than ever that he could sprout wings and fly to the end of the world, and perhaps there he would be able to escape; but for now he wriggled his way under the thorns and emerged in the hushed quiet of the clearing, and looked round at the stones once more.
Nothing had changed. He could still see where the bonfire had been on the night he had rescued Haemel from the knife (though he did not notice the fresh embers, nor the half-burned scraps of leather nestled there); the trees to one side were blackened and charred from the fire he had started; there were even splashes of blood on the stones, and the ropes he had cut from Haemel’s body lay in the grass. But something was different. Something was missing. Then he realised: there was no pressure in his head. It was gone. There was nothing.
He walked through the stones, and now he saw them for what they were: lumps of rock that had been brought here hundreds of years ago and arranged in a circle. There was nothing special about them, nothing sinister. They could not move or speak. They were dead.
He reached the centre of the circle and looked around. He did not know if he expected something to happen. On a whim he sat down on the black stone that served as an altar, then swung his legs round and laid his head back. For a heartbeat he thought he felt something, but it was probably just a pang of hunger. He lay there for a while longer, listening to the sound of the birds and the chirruping of crickets. A starling flitted down and perched on the nearest stone, looked at him for a second, then darted away again. But nothing else happened.
Something was cold on his arm. He looked down: it was the torc. He had forgotten all about it. He took it off and looked at it, thinking back to the first time he had come here. He wondered now what would have happened if they had never found the stones; if he had never taken the torc; if he had never tried to return it; if he had left Haemel as a captive of the galac-men. So many choices; so many times when things could have been different. Would they still be alive? The boys he had met so briefly in that nightmarish cellar: would they still be walking and talking, laughing and fighting? And Mother … ?
He could not finish the thought. Already tears were springing up in his eyes, and he brushed them away angrily and glared up at the sky. It was pale blue now, and a thin wisp of cloud was racing westwards away from the dawn. He tried to think what might be above it, whether Cafan might really be there looking down at him, unmoved by his misery, an eternal god gazing at mortal things and seeing them as they might see a wisp of burning straw that was consumed almost as soon as it caught fire. And his heart raged to think of the cruel fate that had brought him to this day, and he closed his eyes and drew quick, angry breaths, and clenched his fists so that they hurt, and gritted his teeth, and then the pain and hurt boiled over in his chest and bubbled up in his throat, and he opened his mouth and screamed, and the scream echoed around the clearing and made birds burst from the trees and thunder into the sky.
And when the scream had died away it left behind bleak disappointment lying like a stone in his heart. He did not know what he had expected, but whatever had prompted him to come back here was gone. He sighed and slipped off the stone, taking one last look around the clearing. He hurt so much, but he knew he could not heal the pain, because it was the pain of guilt, and of shame, because everything that had happened from the moment he saw the torc had been his fault.
He turned his back on the stones and started to make his way to the edge of the clearing. Balor would be waking up now, and he would be wondering where his brother was. He would need him now more than ever, and so would Father.
He was so caught up in his thoughts he did not hear the voice that called his name.
“Banac.” The second time he heard it, and turned to find he was no longer alone in the clearing. A man stood beside the altar, clad in steel from head to toe, though he bore no arms. His armour was battered and plain, veteran of a hundred conflicts and a thousand blows; over it hung a plain black surcoat embroidered with a simple sigil in white thread: two circles, one within the other, bisected by a vertical line. The only ornament was on the man’s helm, which covered the whole of his head and had a hinged visor fashioned to look like a face, its eyes dark and hollow. The face was neither young nor old, kind nor cruel, happy nor sad — and yet, as Banac looked at it, he felt a chill go down his spine.
The man reached up with a gauntleted hand and raised the visor. His true face was old, shaggy with an unkempt beard, and hard as flint. A long white scar ran from his left eye to the corner of his mouth, tugging at the flesh and giving him a twisted expression. He gazed at Banac for a long time, and neither one of them said a word.
“Your name is Banac,” the man said at last.
Banac nodded tightly.
“Your Father is Beorod.” It was not a question.
“What do you want?”
“I want many things, Banac son of Beorod. But right now I want to talk to you.”
Banac frowned. “Why?”
Even the man’s smile was hard. “Because you are your Father’s heir, and there is much about him you do not know. I have come to enlighten you.”
Banac’s frown deepened. “Who are you?” he said.
The man’s smile was like frost on steel. “My name is Helm.”
* * *
And that’s it.
Watch this space for the next instalment, Coals of Fire, which is out on Monday …