The Endless Circle – Chapter 27: The Bargain

Morning rose over Padascel, bringing with it a ceiling of iron-grey cloud that hung low over the valley. Men peered out of their windows with sour faces, wondering where the summer had gone in such a hurry; stallholders in the marketplaces erected brightly-coloured canopies to ward off the rain that would surely come before the day was out.

In his room high above the valley, Father stirred and opened his eyes. For a second he tensed, forgetting where he was and how he had come there; then recollection washed over him, and he relaxed and lay back on the bed, licking dry lips. He turned his head to look at the table. The tray was gone, and the silver box along with it. A fresh decanter of wine had been placed by the bed, along with a crystal goblet: he sat up, poured himself a measure and drank it down in one draught, washing out his sticky mouth.

He stood and stretched himself, working out a knot in his back, then walked to the window to look at the view. It was hard to see how it had changed, though many years had passed since he had last looked upon it. The buildings were the same, the valley was the same; in fact, nothing at all seemed to have changed in the long years that separated his first sight from this.

From somewhere high in the city bells began to ring out, their delicate peals chiming distantly as they built to a crescendo. As the last notes died away a single bell tolled once, and was silent.

There was a bitter taste in Father’s mouth as he looked out on the city, one which the wine could not wash away. He had expended so much energy making sure he got away from this place; and now here he was, right back where he started, in almost the same building! He leaned out of the window and looked to his right. Yes, there it was, rising in the same austere spires and carved finials he remembered from all those years ago: the Royal College — which put him in the Palace, in the very centre of the Citadel, against the very breast of the mountain. He laughed grimly at the irony of it all, and turned away to wander the rooms and wait to be summoned.

*

He waited for an hour, alternating between sitting at the window and gazing out at the backdrop of his past, and sitting at the table and toying with a piece of fruit or a cup of wine. The masked man had told him to wait, so he waited; but for his whole life he had been a man of action, and the tedium of doing nothing but wait was almost more than he could bear.

He occupied himself with regrets. There were so many he hardly knew where to start.

He regretted the day on the beach, when he had seen the Scholar and his soldiers beneath the banner of the king. In that moment had conceived a hastily-formed plan, but he regretted his haste, for now he was in no position to control anything, but rather to be controlled. The masked man, the leader of the order (of galac-men, or whatever they were — even after all these months he was not sure) clearly knew more about him than anyone had a right to, which concerned him; he regretted that he had not covered his tracks more completely when he left the city in the first place, to frustrate the enquiries of such men.

He regretted — here a stronger, sharper pang — sending Banac after Haemel; Cafan only knew what had happened to him since. Had Haemel had the presence of mind to send Banac back home? He doubted it. It was not in Haemel’s nature. Haemed’s, maybe, but never Haemel’s. He regretted ever allowing his wife’s father to tell stories to the boys, for allowing them to become creatures of such imagination. Now the time had come when their imaginations would lead them into dangers they could never have conceived of.

There were more regrets, but when they were finished he set them aside and applied himself to planning. The masked man had kept him alive for a reason, which meant that his life had some worth to it, for now at least. He remembered the masked man’s words: When I heard of your capture, I became curious … So before his capture the man had not been thinking of him; which meant the masked man did not yet have a solid plan of what to do with him. That was good. It meant there was an element of uncertainty, a chink into which Father might insert some lever and prise the whole scheme apart. How? No. Later. Think about the ‘how’ later.

He glanced out of the window again. Of course, if he was to do anything he had to re-establish contact. And who better to help him than—

There was a sharp knock on the door, breaking into his thoughts. He jumped to his feet, suddenly alert. “Come in!” he called.

He was expecting the masked man, or at least a guard to escort him. But the man who entered was neither of these. He was tall and thin, with a thin face that looked as though it did not smile very often. He wore a long black robe and a slim gold chain around his neck, and he stopped just inside the door and bowed slightly.

“Good day, sir,” he said, his voice rich and rounded from a lifetime of education. “I am the door-warden of the Palace. My name is Aedor. I trust the rooms are to sir’s liking?”

Father nodded. “Very much so,” he replied. “Though I must confess I’m not used to some of these luxuries.”

“Indeed, sir.” Aedor’s tone made it clear that he could not care less about what Father was used to. “I have been instructed to escort sir to meet with my master, if it would please sir?”

“It doesn’t actually matter if I please or not, does it?”

Aedor’s lip twitched in the ghost of a smile. “Sir is very astute. Now if it would please sir to follow me …?” He let the end of the sentence hang in the air and gestured to the door.

Father inclined his head, took one last look around the room, then left, and Aedor closed the door behind them.

*

They walked for a long time, headed downwards, passing through more corridors and splendid halls with high, vaulted ceilings. Tapestries hung everywhere, and candles burned in heavy gold sconces on the walls. Aedor sped along with a speed born of efficiency; Father had to follow at a half-run just to keep up. He had neither the time nor the breath to ask questions.

They eventually left the main passageways behind them, descending a series of steep spiral staircases that seemed to corkscrew down forever. After what seemed like hours they emerged in a cellar full of barrels and the smell of earth. Aedor led the way between rows of burning torches, through a labyrinth of brick-lined passages, past alcoves filled with crates and chests of all shapes and sizes. Once Father thought he glimpsed racks of weapons hanging on the wall in one room as they passed, but there was no time to stop and look. Aedor swept him along like a leaf in the wake of his energy.

More twists and turns through the subterranean maze, then they came to a narrow cul-de-sac, where Aedor finally stopped. He turned to Father with a solemn expression.

“I can go no further,” he said.

He pointed to the end of the passageway. Father looked, and saw the outline of a door set into the far wall. The lintel and posts of the door were made of heavy stones, and in the flickering torchlight Father could just about make out a worn inscription on them, characters that were not of his own language yet were strangely familiar. For a moment he studied them, confused. Then he remembered where he had seen them before — on the stones near the village, where they had spent so many nights in meetings and rituals. They had not been written when the stones were raised — no, the men who had done that would never have written such things. Those characters had been etched many thousands of years later, and these were the same. There was no mistaking them — they had a cruel and vicious shape to them, as though written with the point of a sacrificial knife.

“They say, ‘Only the faithful may pass this way; may death come swiftly to the unbeliever.’” Aedor’s voice was hushed and reverent. He handed the torch to Father, then stepped forwards and set his bony shoulder to the door. At first it resisted, but after a hard shove it gave way and swung open to reveal only darkness beyond.

Aedor stepped back and turned to look at Father.

“I pray that you are faithful,” he said.

Father looked into his eyes, but said nothing. Then he pushed past him and ducked through the doorway.

*

Beyond the door was a rough passageway, little more than a tunnel carved into the rock. The floor was uneven, and it sloped gradually downwards as it twisted back and forth, worming its way into the belly of the earth.

The air was strangely warm, and it grew warmer the further Father went, until he could feel small beads of sweat pricking at his forehead. At one point he brushed up against the wall, and recoiled sharply — the rock itself radiated heat, like embers after the fire had gone out.

As he descended he became aware of a familiar pressure building behind his eyes. He shook his head and blinked, but the pressure did not recede. Instead it grew, spreading through his head. The sound of his footsteps became muffled, and his vision blurred at the edges. He stumbled, almost falling, and had to catch himself on the rock wall. Never before had he felt this sensation so strongly. What was it doing down here, under the roots of Padascel?

He pressed on, ignoring the pressure, and after a few final minutes he rounded a last turn in the passage and the walls fell away to either side and the ceiling rose over his head, and a gaping cavern of darkness yawned in front of him, swallowing the light of the torch and sucking at Father’s eyes. He gasped, overcome by the awesome scale of what he saw.

He stood at the edge of an immense cathedral of rock, hollowed out from the roots of the mountain. Stalagmites as tall as trees bristled from the floor, reaching up to meet stalactites like dragons’ teeth, forests of rock spread as far as the eye could see, untouched by wind or sun; in between the frozen forests were shimmering plains of quartz that caught the light of his torch and reflected it back a thousand times, but still the light could not begin to penetrate the darkness that surrounded him, as everlasting as the emptiness of the night sky between the stars. Water dripped somewhere in the distance, the sound amplified a thousand times by its own echo. Father shifted his foot, and the slight scuffle was caught by the void and repeated over and over, whispering through the darkness until it passed away out of hearing. There were no buildings of men that could compare with the grandeur of nature’s own architecture: the village would have been lost in that darkness in an instant.

The pressure in Father’s head was greater than ever. It throbbed silently yet persistently, thrumming in the background of his mind. He put a hand to his forehead, trying somehow to press it out, though he knew the attempt was useless; and even as he stood there he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and a figure stepped into the torchlight, robed and hooded.

“You can feel it,” he said. “It is their call. You know it well. And yet … you did not expect it here, I think?”

The masked man extended a hand. Father did not take it. He gazed steadily into the dark eye-sockets, and after a moment the hand curled in on itself, and the masked man made an amused sound in the back of his throat.

“I forgot,” he said. “We are enemies now, and you no longer serve me.”

“I never served you,” said Father.

“You made a fair semblance of it.”

Father did not reply, and the masked man did not question him further. Instead he turned and gestured into the empty darkness of the cave. “Will you walk with me?” he said. “There is much I wish to discuss.”

Without waiting for a reply he set off; and because there was nothing else he could do Father followed him into the gloom.

For a long time they walked in silence, passing between huge buttresses of rock and across wide plains, their footsteps echoing on and on through the gloom. Father felt like a stranger in a foreign country, at odds with his surroundings.

After long minutes of silence the masked man said, “I trust the rooms were to your liking?”

Father ignored the question. “What am I doing here?” he said instead. “Why haven’t you killed me yet?”

The masked man laughed. “Beorod, Beorod! You are nothing if not direct! But I think you know the answer to that question.” He glanced sidelong at him. “Luck has brought you to me, that or the will of god — I have long since ceased to see the difference — and now I have you, you are valuable to me, too valuable to be wasted.”

“You know I will not help you.”

“No. You do not wish to help me.” The masked man held up a finger, correcting him. “But you will. In time, you will understand. You will come to my point of view.”

“I doubt it.”

“Then let me tell you a story,” the masked man said. “My story. And see if it changes your mind.”

Father said nothing, so the masked man continued:

“The story begins in my childhood, many years ago now. I was a privileged child, and consequently much was expected of me, by my parents and my teachers. They pushed me to achieve, academically and physically, but I suppose that in many ways I failed them. Their treatment drove me away from them, emotionally and physically. I spent my time alone, wandering the halls of the palace, until I found my way down to these cellars, to a place where I found I could be alone with my thoughts. I wanted so desperately to escape my life and everything associated with it. I remember wishing that I could somehow be spirited away, into the world I had heard about in the old stories and songs, where there was little death or misery and good always triumphed over evil.

“Of course, I could not. I did not find my escape. But I found something else, something hidden down here, away from the prying eyes of men. How long it had lain hidden I do not know — still I do not know, even after all my research into the matter.”

Father listened, carefully showing no sign of the unease that was growing inside him. It all added up: the sign over the door, the pressure in his head, the heat, the masked man’s words. And yet he did not want to believe it. To believe it would be to admit something too terrible to be imagined.

“It is near,” the masked man said, as if reading his thoughts. “Come. I would have you see it with your own eyes.”

The air in the cavern was thick, and hotter than ever, and the pressure in Father’s head mounted as they walked across a floor of smooth rock. There was an oily taste on his tongue. He licked his lips, but the taste was there also, and it nauseated him. It was as if the very atmosphere of the place was trying to get into his body, to fill him up or take him over. The sensation played upon his mind, making him suspicious of every shadow, every dim shape that loomed from the darkness. He was not looking where he put his feet, and when his foot landed on something smooth and round he cursed and almost fell.

The masked man looked over his shoulder. “Be careful,” he said.

Father looked for the object that had tripped him, and saw that it had rolled away across the stone floor. He bent down and reached for it, his brow furrowing in curiosity. It was a small metal sphere, about the size of a plum; a row of four characters, foreign to Father’s eyes, had been stamped into the surface, but apart from these marks the sphere was perfectly smooth. He looked down again. There were more of the spheres scattered around, but there seemed to be no discernible use for them.

He did not have time to study the strange objects, however, for at that moment the masked man spoke again.

“We are here,” he said, and Father looked up, and what he saw made him forget about the spheres in a heartbeat.

In the middle of the darkened cavern, ancient and forgotten, stood a wide circle of standing stones. Protected from the elements and the hands of vandals, these stones were neither broken nor fallen, but stood in the places where they had been set, complete, as perfect as the day they had been raised. As always there were two circles: an outer ring of taller stones rising three times Father’s height, and an inner ring half as high. In the very centre, just visible by the light of the torch, was a square-cut slab of black rock that glistened slightly in the uneven light.

“There,” the masked man breathed. Father glanced at him — the eyes behind the mask were wide, and his breathing was fast and shallow. He had the aspect of a man in the presence of his lover: enraptured, transfixed.

“There it is,” the masked man repeated. “The centre. The very centre of all that has happened to me: the beginning and the end.”

He took two steps forward. Father did not follow him, but eyed the stones warily, taking in their familiar shapes with a growing sensation of dread. Now he understood exactly what it was the masked man wanted from him.

“I came to this place twelve long years ago, and what I saw I have never forgotten.” The masked man turned to him. “Have you seen it?” he asked, suddenly curious. “You know what it is, but have you ever seen it for yourself?”

Father shook his head slowly.

“Ah.” The masked man sounded disappointed. “Then I have seen something which you have not Beorod, and I pity you. It is … No. It is beyond words. I cannot describe it. Was it god? Was it heaven? Did I step into the throne room of the creator? I do not know. But I know that in that moment, here in this place, I found my escape. I found my way out of this life. I found the pathway that breaks beyond this endless circle and leads to another place, a better place entirely.”

The masked man had been standing tall, his voice strong and fervent, but now his shoulders sagged. “I was sent back,” he said, his voice weak and bitter. “I was left cold and alone in this place, cast out of the light, rejected. But I was determined to find my way back again, and I was resolved to do whatever it took.

“At first I took to coming here at every opportunity, wasting hours and sometimes days in my lonely vigil. I found nothing, and after some days I gave up. Accident would not befriend me twice. Somewhere, somehow, there was a key to unlock the door I had found. I needed to find this key, this way back through, or else I was sure I would go mad.

“I began to read, books of history, books of lore, books of black and white magic. I studied hard, learning history and language. My parents were amazed at the change that came over me; they did not know that my sole purpose was finding my way back to where I had been, and so escaping from them. But the reading was not enough. The words of dead men could only take me so far, and they often spoke in riddles and half-truths — I needed to meet someone who had experienced such things for himself, someone who could give me first-hand knowledge. I made enquiries, arranged meetings, and spoke with many men who had no more knowledge than myself. I began to despair, thinking that the matters which had so gripped me were doomed to fade and die with a lost generation.

“Then I met Iefor.” The masked man looked at Father purposefully to see his reaction at the mention of the name. Father kept a carefully blank face, though inside his heart was racing, and the masked man grunted and looked away again.

“Iefor came to me in my hour of need, and he gave me what I needed, or thought I needed. He introduced to me the old ways, the rites of the elder gods, the ways of the galac-men who (so he told me) alone of all men had known true wisdom. He spoke many wise words and showed me many things, and together we began to form a new order, a new brotherhood to bring true power back into this grey and lifeless world. For the first time in my life I knew true and lasting joy. I had a purpose, and I saw in Iefor my chance to re-open the gate of heaven.

“We worked for many years, progressing steadily together. Iefor was my constant companion and counsellor, and I hung on his every word. But as the first fires of enthusiasm faded so did the flower of our friendship. As I learned more of Iefor, and spoke to those who had had dealings with him, I came to hear of some of his less attractive aspects. I said nothing of what I knew, but there began to be between us a separation, a suspicion each of the other, that continues to this day.

“Having lost the close companion who had so inspired me, I turned again to my own research, seeking out such truth about the stones as I could find on my own. I was like a blind man, fumbling in the darkness, feeling for I knew not what. I trusted to luck, or the will of god, to bring me the answer — and, in due time, it came. I found the first mention of the Society — is that what you call it? I do not know. None of the records name it, though they write its symbol and discuss its history and purposes. At first I was suspicious. I confess that the more I read the less I believed, and for a long time I considered this Society to be little more than the invention of broken minds. Then my research moved into documents stemming from recent history, and I began to uncover names that I knew, names of men whose descendants could be traced.

“It was not easy, mark you. Your people are cunning and resourceful, and they have remained hidden for many hundreds of years; but I am nothing if not persistent, and when I decide to do a thing then that thing is done. I found a man who knew a man who knew a man who knew a place where I might find a man … and so on, through many circles of secrecy, until I came upon extremely recent records of a very sensitive nature, containing names that shocked and surprised me when I first read them. I could not believe that such men were involved in these matters: men holding the very highest positions of authority within the very walls of this city. And amongst those names was one that was mentioned again and again, and in terms of the very highest praise: yours, Beorod.”

The masked man glanced sideways again, and Father watched him as a lion eyes its rival: wary, careful, judging thoughts and intentions.

“I read eagerly,” the masked man continued “I traced the line of your family, found that the male line had held the headship of the order for hundreds of years, and so that it would pass, in time, to you. I knew then that you were the man I wanted. You were the man who could tell me most, who could reveal to me the very darkest and deepest secrets of the things I wished to know.

“But then, quite suddenly and without any warning, your name disappeared from the record entirely. Imagine my surprise and alarm! At first I thought you dead, Beorod, so well did your fellows cover up your disappearance. I despaired at the thought of losing such a one as you. I moved my enquiries from the books to the streets, and put out my fingers — gently, ever so gently — to acquire more exact information; that was when I began to have my suspicions that all was not as it seemed. I continued my enquiries, and slowly some fragments of truth began to emerge. Beorod was not dead — instead, he had left the city and travelled east, and the Society had gone to great efforts to keep his departure a secret.

“I pressed on. I dug further. I found that the Society had been in contact with — of all things — the beremen! I did not know why, but this Beorod had been meeting with the foul creatures and exchanging information. And there my enquiries came to and end, and the information dried up. I did not know the exact whereabouts of this Beorod, nor the reason for his departure. I knew only that to find what I was looking for, and to unlock the last mysteries of the standing stones, I needed this man and the knowledge he possessed. But it seemed I would never know.

“Until these past few days. Until I discovered that through pure chance, as a result of his own pride, Iefor had brought to me a man who could be the very one I sought — a man named Beorod, from the coast, a consorter with beremen of the royal houses. I found myself intrigued, I gave command, and here we find ourselves.”

The masked man finished speaking. Father grunted.

“A pretty story,” he said. “Did you bring me down here to corroborate it?”

“No,” said the masked man. “I brought you here to make you an offer.”

Father said nothing.

“You are the next in line to the headship, Beorod. To you belong the reins of power, and such secret knowledge that not even those within your own order know of it.”

“Even if I did, what do you expect? That you will be able to extract this information from me?”

“On the contrary, I wish you to give it willingly.”

“Meaning?”

“I wish for us to be friends, Beorod. Allies. Working towards the same goals, the same aims.”

“The same aims?” Father laughed. “What makes you think that would ever be possible, that I would want the same things as you? We are complete opposites, you and I! We are as far from each in morals as east is from west! There can be no meeting between us! We are enemies!”

He stopped, because the masked man was laughing gently, shaking his head.

“You do not know me, Beorod,” the masked man said. “You do not understand me. I am not an idealist — I believe no man truly can be, not even you. Religion, politics, beliefs, ethics — all these things are subjective. They can be altered, changed, revised, improved upon. Maybe you see me and my followers as fanatics, as ‘evil’ if you will. We are quite the opposite, or at least I strive to make it so. I have no business with blind faith, or hatred for the sake of hatred. Everything I do serves a single purpose, and I would do anything to serve that purpose. I would bed my own enemy, I would kiss his feet, I would kill my own children, shed my own blood, betray the very principles by which I live, betray the principles of the purpose itself, if by my actions I would come closer to achieving that purpose. I am a pragmatist, you see. I understand that this world is far too complex a place for men of fixed morals.

“So yes, I make this offer to you, my enemy. And I know you will accept my offer, Beorod. You will work with me, you will be my friend; and you will do this, because every man has something in this world that he cannot stand to lose, and every man will change his mind — nay, he will change his very self — when this thing is threatened. I know what it is for you, Beorod. Your family, your two boys — Banac and Balor, isn’t it? — your wife, your peace, your idyllic life. That is why you left this city in the first place: to save your family from the terrors it breeds. Make no mistake: I will exploit them if I have to. I will cut their throats and hang them up to bleed if that is what it takes to have you.”

The masked man spoke without emotion, but somehow his quiet, calm voice was worse than any rage. Father knew that he would do it without hesitation. He would kill anyone to get what he wanted.

“Is it enough?” the masked man said quietly, when Father said nothing. “Will this persuade you, Beorod? Or must you be bought also?”

Father glared at him, burning with hatred. The masked man had him in the palm of his hand, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“No,” he replied. “It is enough.”

The masked man showed no emotion. “Good,” he said. He turned to look at the stones. “They are beautiful, are they not? So very beautiful …” He stood for a moment, motionless, silently contemplating them; then he shook his head and looked back at Father.

“I will leave you here,” he said. “I have business to attend to in the city. Take your time. Study them. Think how we shall work together. When you are finished you may return to your rooms. I will leave a man to go with you.” He turned about and swept away into the darkness, leaving Father alone with the stones.

When he was gone Father turned and looked long and hard at the stones. He felt cold, and sick, and weak. He had gambled, and now it seemed he had lost. He had not considered deeply enough, had not weighed the risks against the gains. And now he had put his family in danger. Sudden fear clutched his heart. After all these years his past had caught up with him — it seemed there was nothing he could do to escape it.

He looked up at the stones. They were just one more thing he had to worry about. Here? Under Padascel herself? They had never guessed, never suspected. Why had the Hermit said nothing? Maybe he was ignorant himself. In any case, this was news that must reach the others as soon as possible.

Father clasped his hands together and clenched them tight, his eyes roving over every detail of the cavern. As far as he could see the stones were the only thing that stood here. He glanced down, then took a step back and raised the torch over his head to get a better look at what he saw.

The floor of the cavern had been painted, though the paintings were covered by a thick layer of dust and gravel so he could not get a clear look; but he was sure he saw what looked like dragons, or at the least great beasts with claws and long snouts; there were trees, laden with fruits of a hundred different kinds, surrounded by tiny naked figures with their faces raised up to the branches that were far out of reach; horses, dogs, birds, serpents, their forms twisted awkwardly and unnaturally around each other; and other forms, geometric and unlovely, that appeared to be palaces or castles rising tall and slender in great clusters.

He knew what they appeared to be — of course he did. He had heard the teachings, learned the words; but he had never been able to imagine what it might be like. Cities of glass; metal birds; men who travel to the stars … He had recited the phrases time and again until they were seared into his memory; and now, here, down in the darkness, the words came alive in his mind as his eyes took in the images spread around him, and for the first time in his life he truly believed all he had been taught.

He stayed standing there for a long time, his heart beating fast with fascinated wonder, and the stones watched him in silence.

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