The Endless Circle – Chapter 26: Deep and Dark

Haemel did not know what had happened. He could not remember. As he struggled back into consciousness flashes of it came back to him, disjointed images of blood and death; but they would not coalesce into a whole.

He stirred, and found that he was bound hand and foot with iron shackles that clinked when he shook them. There was an iron tang in his mouth, and his jaw hurt. He started to explore with his tongue, and came up against a metal plate jammed between his teeth. The plate was attached to a brace that had been fixed to his head, extending all the way around to the base of his skull, where it was locked shut. He could not open his mouth at all, could hardly swallow or breathe.

He opened his eyes. He was lying against the wall of a low circular chamber. A fire burned in a pit in the centre of the chamber, and two passageways led away from it. In the wall opposite where he lay a low alcove had been carved, no more than two feet high. A stone effigy crouched in its dim recesses, surrounded by offerings of gold and silver, and other objects as well, white and hard, some long and thin, and others small and rounded with indentations on one side: human bones, scattered in offering before the deity that lived in this smoky chamber hidden far from the sun.

But it was not the bones that drew Haemel’s eye — above the shrine, scrawled roughly into the rock with a knife and painted in with some white pigment, was a symbol he recognised, one he had seen many times before: two circles, one within the other, with a vertical line bisecting them. The sight of it here, so close to Padascel, made Haemel’s heart beat faster, for he knew what it signified. Beorod was right. He should have listened to him.

He looked around the rest of the chamber. Paintings covered the walls, daubed crudely, as if the artist had used his hands for brushes and his own bodily fluids for pigments; but they were clear enough for Haemel to make out the details: images of sacrifice and slaughter, of lines of people being herded under the knife, of priests and priestesses bearing chalices of blood to heathen altars. They stretched around the whole of the room, reaching from floor to ceiling, and they were ancient. Whoever painted them was long since dead.

But whoever had made the fire was very much alive, and by the look of the wood that was stacked on the blaze they had not been gone for more than ten minutes, and might well return at any moment. Haemel began to struggle against his bonds, writhing this way and that, trying to somehow loosen the bands that held him fast. It was no good. After less than a minute he stopped and fell still. There was no use expending precious energy that could be better used elsewhere.

There were footsteps, and muttered voices approaching from one of the passageways. Haemel lay still and closed his eyes, though he kept his ears open.

Two men entered the room, one with a long, confident stride, and the other shuffling nervously. Haemel kept his eyes closed and stayed limp, feigning unconsciousness, hoping they would not look at him too closely.

A pause. Then the voice of a young man. “Still asleep.”

“Suffering, my lord. From the affliction of its race.” This second voice was older, harsher, more cynical. Immediately Haemel recognised it, though he had only heard it a few times, and immediately he put a name to it: Iefor. Hatred stabbed somewhere deep inside him. He clenched his fists and lay still.

“Did it kill many when they captured it?” the young man said.

“About seven of them, lord. The imp as well.”

“Really?” The young man sounded impressed. “So the stories are true.”

“As true as stories go.”

“Well, it is ours now. Nothing else matters. Is all ready?”

“Yes, lord. The time is very near. We should see it tonight.”

“And you are sure this is the right time?”

“Certain, my lord. Certain.”

“Good. You have been wrong before. Do not be wrong again.” Another pause. “There is a related matter that concerns me.”

“My lord?”

“My brother is growing curious. Since he has returned he has been asking … difficult questions. I believe he has begun to make a search.”

“I noticed nothing unusual in his behaviour when he was with us, my lord.”

“Nevertheless, I am not happy. Find some way to put him off the scent.”

“Yes, my lord. I believe I have a way, my lord.”

“Good. Do it. Make sure we are undisturbed tomorrow night. Also, I will be visiting Beorod shortly. I wish to bring him to the sanctum. Make sure we have privacy.”

Iefor did not reply. In the silence Haemel could sense a sudden tension.

“Is something wrong?” the younger voice said.

“No, my lord. Nothing. Nothing at all …”

“But …?”

Hesitation. “One does wonder, my lord, whether the man is to be trusted. After all, he is the head of their order.”

“He was foolish enough to allow himself to be captured and brought to me in the first place, therefore he is a man of weak constitution. I will break him, Iefor. I know where to apply the right pressure. Do not concern yourself with these things.”

“I live to obey, my lord.”

“Do not forget it.”

A rustle, the exchange of farewells by handshake or bow perhaps, then a single set of footsteps moving away. Haemel stayed still, his eyes closed, his breathing carefully regular. One of them was still in the room with him. He could hear the sound of his breathing, could even smell the sweat on him.

Someone approached and crouched down next to him. He heard a disgusted tut, then the someone spat in the dirt.

“Filthy animal,” Iefor muttered. “Death’s too good for your kind.”

A hand touched Haemel’s shoulder, but he did not flinch. He gave no sign that he was awake, that he had heard anything of the conversation between the two men. The hand ran up his shoulder to the nape of his neck, where it checked the lock on the muzzle before retreating, satisfied. It returned to pat him twice on the head, like a dog.

“Sleep well,” the Scholar murmured.

Then he left, and Haemel was alone with his thoughts.

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