The Endless Circle – Chapter 21: The Canal

The sun was still high, only just past the zenith of her flight. She glared down over the shoulder of the mountain, painfully bright to look at. As Banac walked down towards the city he had to shield his eyes so that he was not dazzled.

The city seemed to grow larger and larger as he approached, her walls and towers rising up and filling his view. The mountain in whose lap she nestled glowered down at him like a watchful father, protecting the jewel that lay between his arms, distrustful of those who came to her seeking succour.

A long, straight road led up the valley to the gate of the city, busy with traffic in the late afternoon. Sprawling for some way on either side of the road was what Banac had at first taken to be a rubbish dump; but as he came closer it resolved itself into a motley collection of ramshackle huts, lean-tos and hovels: a slum, built from whatever material its inhabitants could find. In amongst the crowded buildings scores of figures shuffled or sat, their faces blank and their eyes brimming with a hollow despair, as if they had given up completely on life. A smell wafted up to him, sharp and rancid, the aromas of rotting fruit and human waste mingling in the air and festering in the heat of the midday sun.

Here, he realised with a start, was another city, one he had heard nothing about. As he came closer he could make out some of the unfortunates who called it home. Without exception they were old, sick, maimed, blind and deaf; and all sat or stood between their rickety dwellings, not engaged in any meaningful employment. Some stared idly up at the sky, some fiddled nervously with their fingers or hair, others simply chuckled to themselves as if they saw the great joke behind whatever turn of events had brought them to such a place.

Here and there scattered pairs of soldiers patrolled on horseback, their shining livery in stark contrast to the poverty all around them. As Banac approached the outskirts of the slum he saw one pair of soldiers dismount and set upon an elderly man lying sprawled in an open sewer, laying their heavy boots into his emaciated form. The man gibbered pitifully and jerked his thin body, trying to get away from their boots, but the guards hemmed him in.

Banac stopped short, watching in horror, expecting someone to intervene. But no-one did, and when the soldiers had finished they simply adjusted their tunics, laughed to each other, and mounted up again, leaving their victim lying motionless behind them. No-one helped him. No-one looked. The passers-by put their heads down and carried on their way, afraid of receiving the same treatment.

Banac stood watching the man for a full minute. Eventually he stirred and picked himself up, muttering through his beard as he hobbled away through the buildings, and Banac watched him go with mounting revulsion. He could not believe what he had just seen, what he was still seeing now. This was not the Padascel Grandfather had spoken of. This was something out of a bad dream.

After what seemed like hours he stirred himself and walked down to the edge of the settlement, looking around in a daze. The place had a thrown-together look, as if it had been put up overnight: most of the buildings were no more than a few slats of wood propped up with some bare branches thrown across the top for a roof. In nearly every doorway lay a slumped skeletal figure, blank eyes gazing sightlessly. It was impossible to tell if some of them were men or women.

Drawn by morbid curiosity he peered into one of the empty doorways. White eyes stared back at him from the darkened room beyond, and pale teeth gnashed from the shadows. He drew back in alarm, treading awkwardly on something behind him. There was a sickening snap, and he looked down, cold horror flushing through him as he saw what he had trodden on: the arm of a skeletal figure lying prone in the dirt. He was about to call for help, but when he looked closer he saw with a lurch that it did not matter anyway: the man was dead.

He stumbled away, trembling all over. This could not be real. Why had Grandfather never said anything about these people? He glanced up at the city that towered over the slum. It was enormous now, filling his view, its watch-towers tall and intimidating. But no longer did it look beautiful or romantic — now he could see the details he had missed from a distance: where the walls were stained and broken, and where long dark streaks of filth ran down from the battlements over bricks that had been smashed or stolen.

What kind of people lived behind those walls? he wondered. How could they carry on with their lives, knowing what was happening outside their gates? He thought of Haemel’s song, and the note of bitterness that had been in his voice. Haemel had known the truth about this place.

He stumbled on, awed into silence by everything he saw.

*

The road that cut through the middle of the sprawling slum was much like the one they had crossed on their way from Craec Annwn, raised up on a grassy rampart and paved with thick stones. At this time of day it was not busy — only a few carts rumbled past now and again, and pedestrians were even rarer — and none of those who used the road looked either left or right as they passed, but kept their eyes fixed straight ahead, ignoring the poverty lying sprawled a few metres away. To help this separation a wide strip of ground had been cleared on either side of the road, keeping a good distance between the rich and the poor. It was littered with rubbish, cast-offs of the passers-by. Here and there some of the more lucid amongst the poor were picking over these scraps, looking for anything they could eat, use, or sell.

No-one stopped Banac as he crossed over this no-man’s-land and clambered up the grassy rise. A pair of soldiers turned their heads in bored curiosity, but they said nothing. Clearly he looked respectable enough to belong with those who used the road, and not with those whom it passed by.

Once on the road Banac understood why no-one looked at the shanty-town. It was surprisingly easy to forget that it was even there. For one thing he was raised up well above its low roofs, and for another the city loomed larger than ever, drawing his eyes as he progressed and helping him to ignore what lay under his nose.

As he came near the massive gates, flung wide open for now, Banac’s feeling of disgusted fascination grew. Rubbish was piled high against the walls; white streaks of bird-droppings were everywhere; a haze seemed to hang over the houses, the accumulated effect of a thousand bodies breathing and sweating through her streets. Padascel was overpowering in the sheer size and scope of her decay. Banac wondered for a moment whether she had ever been the pristine Citadel of legend he had heard so much about, so many years ago before even the Oscemen had come to her.

Banac felt a sudden strong longing to be back at home, away from such great and terrible things. Padascel was far removed from the shining city from Grandfather’s tales, so far as to be a different place entirely. He felt betrayed, as if he had stepped into the sweetest dream only to find it was a nightmare.

* * *

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