Apropos of nothing, just to remind you that I’m not finished with Banac and Balor.
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A Short Story
My dearest Narin,
Today has been ninety-sixth day since we parted, and I have missed you for every one of them. I miss your smile, your laugh, the way you brush your hair from your face, the way you look at me as though trying to work out some puzzle; the way you tease me like a brother though we mean much more to each other than that …
“What’s that you’re writing, Fish?”
A hand darted down over Banac’s shoulder and snatched the parchment from the table in front of him. He made a feeble effort to grab it, but his fingers were stiff with cold and the parchment slipped through them, and all he could do was turn wearily in his chair to face the one who had taken it. He knew who it would be before he turned.
His name was Daereth, the thin-lipped, tight-faced, chinless son of some Earl or another. He was barely a year older than Banac, but he looked down his long nose at him as though he was no more than a child. The usual rabble of cronies and hangers-on surrounded him, thick-necked and brawny, all of them wearing the expressions of men who have more muscle than brain to their credit. Daereth was slight and slim by comparison, and there was nothing slow about him — his mind was as fast and agile, sharp as the thin-bladed rapier he favoured. His uniform was pristine and elegantly tailored, and his long, dark hair was fashionably oiled and combed flat against his skull.
“A letter?” he sneered, holding it as though it was something dead. “I didn’t know fish could write. Who taught you to hold a quill with those fins of yours, Fish?”
Banac did not reply. All around the bare, cold hall that served as the junior officers’ barracks other men were looking up from their conversations and games to see what was going on. Daereth, aware of their eyes on him, held the parchment at arm’s length and cleared his throat.
“My dearest Narin,” he read. “Today has been the ninety-sixth day since we parted.” A couple of his cronies sniggered. He smirked at them and continued: “I have missed you for every one of them. I miss your smile, your laugh, the way you brush your hair from your face.”
Banac’s cheeks burned. There were more sniggers now, and not just from the group around Dareth. Other men were leaning over to watch the show. It was a cold winter, and barracks life afforded little in the way of entertainment; they would not pass up the chance of a good show, especially at Banac’s expense.
“The way you look at me as though trying to work out some puzzle.” Daereth snorted theatrically, his breath clouding in the freezing air. “The only puzzle is what anyone would find attractive in you. Who is this Narin? Some hussy of yours?”
“A lady,” Banac replied, ignoring the whistles and catcalls from around the room.
Dareth gave another contemptous snort and tossed the parchment dramatically back in Banac’s face. Banac made a grab at it, but it glanced off his numb fingers and fell to the floor. He left it. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him scrabble for it. Not this time.
“She can’t be much of a lady,” Daereth observed to the room in general, “if she’d stoop to trysting with a fish.” He laughed and nudged the crony standing next to him, who joined in, and soon the whole crowd of them were laughing and jeering.
Banac remained silent. He longed to retort; he wanted to jump from his chair and use it to beat Daeteth’s sarcastic smile bloody. But he couldn’t. He mustn’t. He sat where he was, his eyes lowered and his fists clenched, and held his tongue while Daereth continued the tirade of abuse.
They were the same insults he had heard before, and he had long since become immune to them — fish, trout, and beggar were the names Daereth favoured for him personally, while hussy and fishwife were the most savoury of those directed towards the object of his affections. Banac wondered whether Daereth would be so cutting if he knew that he was insulting the daughter of the crown prince. The thought of what Berethel would do if he heard someone using those names for Elwaen made a smile twitch involuntarily at the corner of his mouth.
“What are you smiling at, Fish?” Daereth demanded, cutting into his thoughts.
Banac shook his head and kept his eyes lowered. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” A hand gripped his tunic, and of Daereth’s cronies hauled him to his feet. He looked up to find himself staring into Daereth’s pale brown eyes. The sickly stench of hair-oil wafted into his nostrils.
“Don’t ‘nothing’ me, boy!” Daereth snapped. “You’ll answer me when I ask you a question. What was it you were smiling at?”
Banac shook his head again. “Nothing,” he repeated.
The slap took him by surprise. It was not hard, but the sound of Daereth’s bony hand on his cheek echoed in the frosty hall so that all conversation ceased, leaving behind an empty silence. Banac slowly put a hand to his reddening cheek, feeling a familiar tightening in his chest as Daereth stared into his eyes, challenging him. Men were forming a loose circle around them, keen to see how the confrontation would play out.
“Well?” Daereth hissed.
Banac returned his stare. “Nothing,” he said, quietly but clearly.
Another slap, this time on the other cheek. Someone chuckled. Banac was the only one who could see Daereth’s lip trembling. There was anger there, but it was nothing compared to what was building in Banac. He was finding it harder to control himself these days. If this carried on much longer something was sure to snap, and he knew what would happen if it did.
“I’ll tell you what is nothing,” Daereth said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “You are nothing. Your brother is nothing. Your whole family, your line, you name is nothing. Your father is nothing. Your mother was nothing—”
“Don’t talk about my mother.”
Daereth stopped. Banac was breathing heavily, his jaw and his fists clenched. He could feel the anger building inside him, knew he would not be able to keep it inside for long, knew what would happen if it came out.
Daereth smiled, knowing he had succeeded in baiting his opponent. “Your – mother – was – nothing,” he said again, pushing his face close in to Banac’s. All around them the spectators pressed inwards, eager for the inevitable fight to start. Banac did not back down. He pushed his body closer to Daereth’s. They were the same height, but whereas Daereth was whiplash thin and wiry, Banac was built like an oak, and his strength was well-known among the other junior officers. Daereth had the advantage of speed, but Banac’s fists were famed, and if he could land even one square blow the contest would be his. Money began to change hands as men agreed the odds.
“Say that again,” Banac said, his fists clenching so hard they hurt.
“She was nothing.” Daereth was still smiling, unworried. His hand inched down to his side, slipping beneath the hem of his jerkin. “She was less than nothing. She was a festering whore, a pustule on the back-side of poverty, a boil that needed to be pricked …”
He made an obscene gesture, and suddenly the rage that had been building in Banac burst, and his fist lashed out at Daereth’s face, but Daereth was already ducking away like a snake and the blow glanced off his ear. With shocking speed the rapier was in Daereth’s hand, the point slashing at Banac’s face. As Banac lunged back to avoid it the blade sliced down his chest, leaving a ragged tear in his tunic and a line of red that welled up and burst into white-hot pain.
They drew apart, breathing hard. Banac was hunched and defensive, watching the point of the sword as it moved in tiny circles; Daereth stood ramrod straight and eyed his opponent dispassionately, like a hunter regarding a wounded boar he intended to kill.
“Come on then,” he whispered; and Banac would have accepted the challenge, sword or no sword, if another voice had not rung out from the back of the hall, sharp and authoritative.
“Just what in the name of Maera, Iescwd and Scedan is going on here?”
Banac and Dareth jumped like startled cats, and turned as the crowds parted to admit the newcomer. He was fifty years old, greying and grizzled, his face a patchwork of livid white scars. Over his leather jerkin he wore the black surcoat of a sergeant, emblazoned with the two birds of Padascel, and his right hand rested on the pommel of the broad-bladed sword that hung at his side.
“Eh?” he barked, glaring at both of them as he stumped into the ring of bodies. He took in their injuries: Daereth with a red mark by his ear which would later blossom into a colourful bruise, and Banac with a long red stain slowly spreading through his tunic.
“Nothing, Sergeant Adrael,” Daereth said, unconvincingly. “Just a minor disagreement.”
“Minor, my dripping rear end,” the sergeant growled. He took another look at them, as if deciding whether or not to kill them. “Junior Officer Banac, you should know better than to behave in this way towards your superiors. You will apologise to Lieutenant Daereth immediately …” he paused and raised an eyebrow, and Banac muttered something under his breath that could have passed for an apology, “… and you will report to the mess for an extra hour of detail. Lieutenant, you should know better.”
“I am ashamed of my actions, sergeant.” Daereth lowered his head in contrition. “It won’t happen again.”
Adrael snorted. “Very well. The rest of you, stand at ease.” He paused, and when no-one moved he snarled like a dog. “I said stand at ease, you lice-sucking sons of poxy wenches!”
All of a sudden everyone in the hall had something they had to do, and they turned and went back to their places, leaving the sergeant alone with Banac and Daereth.
Daereth’s cronies had retreated to the doorway to wait for him. Adrael waved a hand at them. “Get rid of your pack, lieutenent. You’re to come with me. I’ve some errands I need you to run when you return to the city tomorrow.”
Banac’s head came up. Was that it? A slap on the wrist for Daereth and hard labour for him? Where was the justice in that?
Adrael saw the look on his face and turned on him. “Was there something you wanted to say, Junior Officer?”
Banac pursed his lips and shook his head. Fighting Daereth was foolish; arguing with the Sergeant was suicide. “No sir.”
“Good.” Adrael snapped his fingers. “Lieutenant. With me.”
Daereth followed him without a backwards glance, and in their absence the men turned back to their idle pursuits, disappointed that their evening’s entertainment had been truncated. Banac was left to himself, to skulk back to his table in silence.
He bent and picked up the fallen piece of parchment, smoothing it flat on the table and weighing it down with the inkwell, careful to avoid smudging what he had written so far. He would finish the letter later. He was not in the mood right now.
He slipped his tunic off over his head and regarded the tear ruefully. He was terrible at mending. He would have to beg a favour to have someone sew it up for him. But a tear he could live with: the cut was more of an issue — it ran straight down his torso from his collar-bone to his navel, and though it was not deep it bled profusely. It hurt as well, as though someone had scored his flesh with a hot poker; the only mercy was that Daereth’s razor-sharp blade had left a clean wound with no ragged edges, so at least it would heal well. But he would still have to wash it, to stop it from festering.
He left the table and walked through the freezing hall to the door, picking his way around fallen masonry and ignoring the sour looks the other men gave him. He had never been popular, and as Daereth’s hostility ensured he never would be he had gotten used to the flat stares and snide comments a long time ago. The best thing to do was to ignore them and hope that he was ignored.
Outside the hall dusk was drawing in. A broad flight of steps led from the high doorway down to a rubble-strewn square, gloomy in the fading light. Across the square more buildings loomed, their crumbling windows like eyeless sockets, grimy camp-fires flickering deep within them like corpse-lights. Beyond the rooftops of these buildings, and other buildings beyond, a sheer cliff rose hundreds of feet to the dusky sky, curving round on both sides so that it encompassed the ruined city of Iamascel in a stony embrace.
The city of Iamascel stood on the westernmost border of the lands of Padascel, and was the last bastion on the frontier of the Ettenlands. Long ago it had been a seat of kings, in the Dark Years after the fall of Oscenwn, when the men of Hamenwn had defied the claim of the throne of Padascel. The city had fallen when Bael the Cunning bought the swords of the Ettenmen with promises of land, and they had sacked and burned it, taking the lands of Hamanwn for their own.
For a century the city had stood dark and empty, the wind in its towers the only sound to be heard. An uneasy peace with the Ettenmen kept the borders of Padascel secure, but in the spring of that year Ettenmen had raided towns deep into the Greenweald, and the banners had been called and the levies raised from farms and villages to march to the defence of the realm. The King’s army had taken Iamascel as their headquarters, and Banac and the other junior officers had marched west with light hearts and loud songs, eager for their first taste of action on the front lines after years of theory in the dusty halls of the College.
That had been in spring, when flowers bloomed in the forgotten courts of Iamascel and songbirds nested in the empty chapels, and the war had not yet started in earnest. Then had come summer, with long days of scorching heat and men dying in the shield-wall, flies in the privies, and everywhere the stink of disease and death. Autumn had followed hard, with driving rains that turned the streets to rivers and the battlefield to a mire that sucked and clung and rotted men’s feet. Now, in the face of winter, the mire had frozen and the city was as grey and hard as iron, and Banac’s heart was grey and hard with it.
A barrel of water stood beside the door of the hall. Banac broke the ice and plunged his arms in to the elbows, gasping and spluttering as he splashed the freezing water over his chest. The wound smarted worse than ever, and the cold set him to shivering, but Banac ignored the pain. He had known enough pain in his life. A little more would do him no harm.
While he waited for his skin to dry he looked out at the city and listened to the faint sounds echoing off the surrounding cliff-face: the trill of a distant pipe playing a jig; soldiers and their women laughing as they danced around a fire in some hidden corner; a dog barking, then a yelp as it was silenced; someone cursing drunkenly nearby. This had been his home for too long, and he had long since grown sick of it.
As Banac looked out over the darkening square he tried to picture how the city must have been in the days of her youth. Had avenues of trees cast their gentle shade along her wide boulevards? Had young men and women wooed each other beneath her once-proud arches? Had kings and princes held court in her lofty halls of judgement? They had, once, but all were dead now, and even their bones were dust.
He stood for a while longer, watching the light fade, then he turned his back on the city and went inside.