The Endless Circle – Chapter 25: Balor Alone

I owe you an apology.

I have not been posting as often as I should. I committed myself to posting these chapters regularly, and I have been lax.

I’m sorry.

Here’s the next chapter of ‘The Endless Circle’ to get us going again.

* * *

The story so far …

Having found a supposedly-mythical beremer at the standing stones near their village, and having brought it back to their home, Banac and Balor are shocked when armed men come from the city of Padascel to take it and their Father away. The soldiers are led by a prince named Berethel, a baron’s son named Aedwyc, and the black-robed Scholar whose interest in the beremer is more than academic.

The boys give chase, intending to rescue their Father, but end up rescuing the beremer instead. His name is Haemel, and as the boys come to know him they begin to realise that the beremer are not so vicious and mythical as they thought.

In the city of Padascel, Father is visited in a dungeon by the black-robed leader of the galac-men, a sinister cult of human sacrificers that worships the standing stones. The leader knows secrets about Father that have been kept for many years, and he asks for Father’s help.

Banac and Balor reach the city of Padascel, but Banac is captured when he goes to spy out the walls, and thrown into a cell by the Scholar’s men. Haemel and Balor follow him down to the city by night, and pay a band of ragged ‘untouchables’ to bring them past the walls through the sewers.

However, they are led into a trap, and when Haemel attacks their attackers and slaughters them viciously Balor runs away, terrified by the violence …

Now read on.

* * *

Balor ran.

The air was ragged in his chest, his mouth tasted of blood, and his legs hurt more than they had ever hurt before, but still he ran. There was nothing else he could do. If he stopped, if he turned back, he would have to face Haemel again.

He could not face Haemel.

There was no other thought in his mind: only the image of Haemel’s face, splashed red with blood, fiercely exultant as he slaughtered those men. The image fed his panic and drove him on as he plunged deeper into the endless catacombs beneath the city.

Left, right, left, right …

He did not know where he was going, and he did not care. He stumbled blindly, barging into unseen obstacles, the touch of his fingers on the rough brick walls his only guide.

Then the ground suddenly disappeared from under his feet, and he was falling, falling, tumbling through thin air. He flailed his arms wildly for a second, then landed with a jarring impact on a steep flight of stairs and rolled over and over, bruising his arms, his legs, his face, until with a final bone-cracking impact he splashed into a filthy puddle and lay still.

He did not get up. For a long time he lay with his face in the water. Every part of his body was crying out in pain, but he ignored it. All he could think of was Haemel: Haemel wielding the swords, Haemel thrusting and stabbing, Haemel killing and killing and killing …

The sobs started somewhere deep inside him, small at first but growing stronger. He muffled them, so that they were more whimpers than cries in the darkness, but his tears were hot and they flowed freely, their salty tang creeping into his mouth. He wept because he was scared, because he was alone, because he missed Father and Mother, because he wanted Banac to be there to help him and comfort him. He could not understand why he should have been left alone; and so he wept, and he did not care who heard him.

At last the whimpers became ragged, and the tears dried up, and Balor fell into exhausted silence, unable to weep any more. He was tired: so very, very tired. He wished it could all be over, that maybe it was some kind of hideous dream from which he was about to wake. He knew it was not, but he wished it all the same, as if by wishing he could make it so.

His wish did not come to pass, and eventually he realised how cold and wet he was and sat up, wincing as his body protested. He wrinkled his nose. He was filthy, his clothes smeared with sewage. He tried brushing it off with his hands, but when he only succeeded in spreading it around he gave up and looked around with unseeing eyes, wondering what he should do.

He was in darkness, as black as pitch. The only way of knowing which way he had come was by the feel of the bottom-most step of the flight down which he had fallen. In the other direction was nothing, just hollow emptiness. The fear rose up again, and he struggled to push it down. He could not be afraid. Not yet. Not now.

Reluctantly he pushed himself off the floor, whimpering at the pain of the cuts and bruises that covered his body. But when he was standing up the pain did not seem so bad. He ran curious hands over his limbs and face, and found a hundred places were the touch came away sticky with blood — but his injuries were not as bad as he had feared. He remembered how Elred had showed him the method for setting broken bones and binding up bad cuts with certain herbs to keep the wound clean, and he remembered how he had been taught that his body would eventually take care of itself; so in the end he decided to leave his body to its task and think about his own.

The more he thought about it, the more he was forced to admit that his problem would not fix itself. For the first time in his life he was faced with the prospect of having to decide what to do. Banac was lost somewhere in the city, and Haemel … he did not want to think about Haemel, but he knew no help would come from him now. There was only one thing he could do, only one thing he wanted to do: find Father, and after that find Banac. Then together they would leave the city and and Haemel behind, and never come back again.

Slowly Balor’s confidence returned, fluttering in his breast like a newborn chick, beating stronger and stronger by the moment. Yes, he would find them, and he would save them. He would be the hero of this tale, and so he would prove to Banac that he could be as brave as anyone.

He looked both ways in the darkness. There was no point going back the way he had come, and besides … he stopped still, straining to catch what he thought he had imagined before, and after a minute he felt it: a breeze, faint but definite, coming from the other direction.
He turned his face to the breeze and limped off down the passageway.

*

Finding his way out took longer than he had imagined. He wandered cautiously for what seemed like hours, shuffling his feet in case he tripped, his hands scraping along the wall, his eyes straining for any light in the darkness. His only guide was the breeze, which sometimes dropped away but always returned with fresh strength to lead him onwards through the maze. He followed it like a thirsty man following the sound of water, knowing it was his only life-line to the world outside.

After many twists and turns, and just as many grazed palms and elbows, the breeze led him to a section of tunnel that sloped sharply upwards and grew narrower and narrower as he climbed, until his head bumped against something wooden that rattled, and he knew his wanderings were over.

Upon further inspection the wooden thing turned out to be a trapdoor. There were cracks in it where the wood had buckled with heat and cold, and when Balor put his eye to one he could make out dim shapes in the darkness beyond. The breeze blew through the cracks in fresh, cold gusts; Balor guessed it led on to a street somewhere.

The door was locked and bolted from the other side. But thankfully whoever in the city was responsible for maintaining trapdoors was not thorough with his job, and the wood was rotten and crumbled immediately to the touch. Balor wasted no time in digging away at the timbers around the lock, and after ten minute’s work the wood was weak enough for him to be able to knock the lock out with his fist and heave the trapdoor open. He scrambled out into the fresh night air, where he stood for a moment, closing his eyes and taking great breaths, relieved to be free after wandering in the cloying dark for so long.

He stood there for long minutes, just breathing, and when he had breathed enough he opened his eyes and looked around.

He was in a narrow alleyway lined with tall buildings that loomed high overhead. Shuttered windows and barred doors surrounded him. Even if he had been familiar with the city there was no way of telling where he was. He could be anywhere. He looked up. The narrow strip of sky between the buildings was black and speckled with white stars. The night was far from over.

He stretched, feeling his joints crack as he arched his back. Then he staggered down to the end of the alley and peered into the street. Everything was dark and still. The houses that lined the street were shuttered and unlit. Nothing moved. The city slept.

The pit of Balor’s stomach tingled as he looked around at the buildings, their empty windows like dark eyes staring down at him. A shout came from nearby, making him jump. A second later there was a bang of something heavy falling to the ground, then the sound of running footsteps receding into the night, leaving still, muggy silence.

This was no place to linger. Balor ventured into the street, looking around for somewhere hospitable to spend the night. All the houses looked the same, with their cracked-plaster walls and their uniform wooden shutters: closed, locked, unwelcoming. He closed his eyes, fighting down the fear, reminding himself that he had no-one else to rely on now. It was up to him, and him alone.

He looked both ways along the street again, picked a direction, and started walking.

*

As he wandered down the empty streets he looked around constantly, staring at the dark buildings that loomed over his head and blocked out most of the sky. His head was turned permanently upwards, his mouth hanging open as he gawped like the simple country boy he was, wondering how men could build things so tall, and why they would want to in the first place.

Turning a corner into a broader street, he was met by the sight of the mountain rising over the buildings, huge, black and baleful, like a sleeping giant. Balor turned his eyes away from it. He did not like it — it was too big, too massive. It filled his gaze and his thoughts, intruding on them like an unwelcome stranger.

After ten minutes of wandering he emerged from the side-streets on to a broad road paved with large, flat stones. A gutter ran down both sides, stinking of human waste; at regular intervals tall wooden posts had been set, supporting black iron cages filled with fire that cast flickering light on to the pavement. The light was comforting after the cloying dark of the alleyways, but between the lamps were patches of deep shadow where nothing could be seen.

This was the main road of the city, which snaked its way from the main gate to the Citadel, winding in great loops back and forth across the valley. During the day the road was a bustling thoroughfare that made the main street of Craec Annwn seem languid by comparison; but now the city slept, and the road was deserted and still.

Again Balor fought down a surge of fear. Nothing moved on the road, but he could not shake the feeling of many eyes on him, watching from the darkened alleyways and streets to either side. He swallowed hard. He could not stay where he was. He had to find somewhere less exposed to spend the night.

He forced himself to step out into the road, but almost immediately he drew back, his heart pounding. Three buildings away from him a dark figure stood in a doorway, completely motionless. Balor held his breath, peering round the corner, watching the man with his hands quivering, waiting for him to move on.

After five minutes the man had not stirred. Balor licked his lips. He was not keen to meet anyone on his own in the city — there was no knowing what someone out at this time would want. He looked back the way he had come, thinking of looking for another way around, but even as he turned the man stirred and looked at something hanging in the shadows near his shoulder. He adjusted whatever it was with a slight clink that sounded loud in the still night, then stepped out of his doorway and pulled a small bell from his belt.

“Foredawn in the city!” he shouted at the top of lungs, ringing the bell lustily. “Foredawn, and all’s well!”

As the bell’s peals echoed between the buildings another shout answered him from further down the road. The man looked up, and Balor looked with him. A gang of young boys had emerged from one of the side-streets and was running up the road towards him, thick pieces of wood clutched in their hands. The man’s eyes widened, and he turned and started to run, but he was too slow. The gang rushed upon him with a babble of raucous cries, their clubs coming down in crushing blows before the man had a chance to defend himself. Balor jerked back and stood in the darkness, his hands trembling and his heart hammering, listening to the sounds of the assault. It seemed like hours before the sickening thuds petered out and the gang ran off, whooping and hollering, into the night.

When it was quiet again Balor risked a glance around the corner. The man was lying in the middle of the road, a dark stain slowly spreading on the cobblestones around his head. There was no-one else around. Balor crept out of his hiding-place and scurried past, trying not to look at the unmoving body, and when it was behind him he broke into a run and did not look back.

Only when he had rounded the next bend in the road did he slow to a walk. He was panting and shivering. Cold sweat bathed his skin. What was this place he had come to? It was not the Padascel from the stories — it was a nightmare that refused to end.

*

Balor walked on in a daze of fatigue and fear. He was afraid to stand still and afraid to go on; afraid of discovery and afraid to meet new danger; afraid of who might come upon him and afraid of what might be waiting for him around the next bend.

So he walked on, eyes cast down, withdrawn and exhausted. Only when the road widened out did he stumble to a halt and look up.

A broad square had opened out in front of him, empty and barren beneath the light of the stars. Around the perimeter tall street-lamps threw their flickering light on the cobbled stones, and beyond the light of the lamps were the closed shutters and bolted doors of shops. By day the square would have been packed with market-stalls and shoppers — the evidence of their trade lay decaying on the cobbles — but for now the traders and their customers slept, leaving the square to sleep also. Only two buildings showed any signs of life.

The first building, on the right-hand-side of the square, was astonishingly lively for that time of night. It rose up four storeys, and from every one of its many windows light and music spilled out in abundance. Balor could see silhouetted figures sitting on window-sills, men and women with their arms around each other and tankards of ale in their hands. Loud voices mingled with the music that filled the square, punctuated now and again by an excited shriek or a round of raucous laughter, or else an angry shout and a brief scuffle that was soon ejected from the main door. Over the door hung a wooden sign painted with a crude sheaf of wheat and what Balor supposed might be the grotesquely made-up face of a woman.

The other building stood opposite the ale-house, and it was quiet and serene in comparison. It was an imposing structure, built entirely of pale stone, which it rose over the square in a jumble of spires and pinnacles. The facade was inlaid with gentle lines of rose pink and dark green, and high above the arched doorway a luminous coloured circle was set, behind which he could see faintly flickering light. Balor had never seen a glass window before, so he could not understand what it was, but he knew it was beautiful.

Carved forms of men and women in long robes clustered around the doorway, the men old and bearded, the women young and gazing adoringly up at them. The statues were crudely painted in garish colours, but here and there the paint had flaked away to reveal pale marble underneath. The doors were flung wide open, allowing free entry into the gloomy interior.

Balor shivered. The night was old, and the warmth of the sun had leeched away many hours ago, leaving only the dead chill that comes before dawn. He was swaying on his feet, half-asleep already, scared, lonely, and desperate for somewhere comfortable to lay his head. He glanced between the two buildings — the loud, bright tavern, and the sombre, quiet structure opposite it — trying to make up his mind.

*

As he passed through the high doorway into the quiet building Balor shivered again, this time with nerves. He did not like the look of the ale-house, with its shrieking crowds and loud music, but this place was only the lesser of two evils. It was too quiet, too sombre, too much like the long-hall when no-one was in it — full of shadows and corners where hidden things could be waiting. But he was tired, and he needed somewhere, anywhere, just to put his head for an hour or so.

He edged further into the building, his eyes adjusting to the gloom as he went. The sounds of music from outside grew fainter, muffled by thick stone walls. The silence settled like dust.

As Balor’s eyes adjusted his first impression was of empty space, reaching out above him and on every side. He came up against the base of a thick pillar set on the cold stone floor and put his hands on it, his eyes wide as he looked around in the musty darkness. Was anyone in here? If not, why had the doors been left open?

He blinked and peered ahead. There was light here, though it was faint and feeble in the huge space. It came from far away, down at the other end of the building: a candle maybe, or a small fire, leaping and dancing, casting crazy shadows across the polished floor.

Balor edged closer to the light, making his way from pillar to pillar. As he neared the light he slowed, his eyes widening as he saw what it illuminated.

The entire far wall of the building was covered with carved figures like those he had seen outside. They emerged from the stone in twisted forms, frozen with their blank eyes staring sightlessly. There were both men and women, some with swords in their hands, others with crowns upon their heads; others reminded Balor of the adanen, the servants of Cafan in grandfather’s stories. They were winged, as the adanen were, but their wings were broader, and emerged from their shoulders instead of their feet. They were not armed as the adanen were, though one or two wore breastplates and helmets; and whereas the adanen had the feet of lions or of eagles, swift and deadly, these other figures looked just like men from head to foot.

But these were not the most remarkable of the figures. Every blank stone eye of every figure had been carved so that it gazed towards a point half-way up the wall, where, in the very centre of the frieze, a woman sat with a child cradled in her arms. Over their heads was a bearded king on a great throne suspended by the winged beings, with rays of sunlight shining down upon him; and all these — mother, child, king and throne — were overlaid with pure gold that shone brightly in the firelight.

Balor’s eyes widened in wonder. For a moment he forgot everything else: Father, Mother, Banac, Haemel, the torc, the Scholar; all of them faded away in the golden light that washed over him. In particular he was drawn to the mother and child. They looked so peaceful, as if they were unaware of the great crowd gazing at them. Something in the back of Balor’s memory stirred, a story he had once heard about a woman and a baby, something that had been important to the person who had told him. There had been … a stable? And a king. But a bad king, not like the one who sat on the golden throne above Balor’s head. He struggled with the vague memory for a while, but in the end he could not remember.

He did not know how long he crouched staring at the figures. The next thing he knew was a great bell tolling in the darkness high above him, bringing him out of his daze. He looked around, wondering if he had dozed off. His legs were stiff again, and he groaned under his breath as he straightened them and stood up, casting around for somewhere to lie down for a few minutes. Rows of wooden benches with high backs filled the dark spaces beyond the pillars. He had not noticed them before, but now he crawled under one of them and lay his head on a handy cushion he found there, then closed his eyes and let his mind wander away into dreams of adanen, and knew no more for a long time.

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