The Endless Circle – Chapter 28: The Citadel

Balor was dreaming of home.

In his dream it was a bright summer’s afternoon, and he and Banac were playing in the breakers on the shore, kicking the water up at each other and laughing as their clothes became soaked. There was something in the back of his mind, something not quiet right, something he should have remembered or was supposed to forget, but he did not know what it was. He ignored the feeling and carried on playing.

He was just about to jump on Banac and throw him into the water when he felt a sudden, sickening blow to his stomach, and his eyes snapped open and he jerked into the waking world with a start, gasping for breath where there was suddenly none. Someone was shouting, a powerful voice filled with rage. He choked and struggled to breathe. His stomach felt as though someone had kicked it, and just as he managed to gasp for air someone did, again, and he gave a strangled cry of pain.

“Get out! Get out!” the voice bellowed. Rough hands grasped his smock and dragged him to his feet. He hit out with his fists, still half in sleep, not knowing what he was fighting against, hardly aware of where he was, but his blows fell short. The hands shook him like a rag until his teeth rattled and his head felt like it would burst.

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing, boy?” The voice was still shouting at him. “This is a house of prayer, and you desecrate it with your vile presence! Out! Out!”

A bright red face loomed at him, white eyes staring out of fat sockets as the hands hauled him up. His feet left the floor and he was carried backwards, still kicking and writhing, past tall pillars and rows of wooden benches. People were staring at him, bearded men in long brown robes, their faces shocked at the disturbance. He barely had time to notice them, for in the next instant the arms that held him heaved him up, and his stomach turned as he was thrown through a high doorway and out into pale daylight. There was a strange moment of weightlessness, a sensation of flight, then cobblestones rushed up to meet his face and a thunderclap of pain shook his whole body as he landed in a crumpled heap on the floor.

As he lay there he heard people laughing nearby, and he opened his eyes. It was morning, grey and sunless. A big stone building towered over him, all spires and lifeless carvings. In the doorway stood a fat man dressed in a long white robe, and a scarlet surplus embroidered with a golden cross draped over his shoulders. The man’s face was pudgy and red, and he was sweating from the effort of ejecting Balor from the building. When he saw Balor looking at him he raised a finger to the sky with an imperious expression on his face.

“Let that be a lesson to you!” he cried. “The house of Iescwd is not for your kind! Did not our Lord Himself cast the sinners out of the temple in Iescelan, saying, ‘You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves’? Surely then there is no place in the Kingdom of God for those who prey upon the toil of others, reaping what they do not sow! Get out, consider your immortal soul, and consider the One Who made you and formed you from your mother’s womb! Return when you have more grace, and ears to hear what our Lord hath said to this sinful realm!”

As he spoke Balor realised the speech was not for his benefit alone. The man was looking over his head at the crowd of people who had gathered behind him. It was they who had been laughing, but now their smiles turned to jeers and they spat in the man’s direction, telling him to get back into his house and pray to his God. One or two turned and walked away; others stayed, raising their voices against the fat man’s tirade. The confrontation continued until the fat man ran out of breath and courage and he turned and swept back inside, keeping his blunt nose in the air.

In the absence of anyone to harass the crowd slowly dispersed, going back to the tasks they had been doing before they had been distracted. They did not take any more notice of Balor — after all, hardly a day went by when the priest did not find someone to throw out of his precious chapel. Soon he was allowed to fade into the background as they got on with their work.

Balor took the opportunity to scramble to his feet and limp over to an empty doorway across the square, where he sat nursing his aching stomach and looked around.

It was morning, though he could not tell exactly what time. A blanket of cloud had turned the sky into a flat plane of leaden-grey light, sapping the colour from everything. Across the square the men who had gathered to watch his humiliation were busy erecting tables and awnings for a day in the market, the sound of their jokes and snatches of song echoing off the buildings. On the far side of the square the tavern’s doors and windows were locked and bolted, its patrons sleeping off their revelries in its filthy, lice-ridden beds. The rest of the city slept with them, waiting for the bell that would signal the opening of the gate and the start of the day.

Balor felt sick, and not just from the pain in his stomach. He had had enough of this city. Nowhere was safe, and the buildings crowding along every street made him claustrophobic. He longed for the open Sea, to be able to see the horizon in every direction he looked; not the pitiful glimpses of sky he had here, crowded with smoke and the haze of a thousand bodies all living within its thick imprisoning walls. He wished he could leave the city right now, and go back home and forget all about Padascel. He wished none of this had ever happened.

From somewhere high in the city bells began to ring out, and when they had finished chiming another bell tolled once, its long note echoing grandly between the buildings and the low grey sky. At that signal the stallholders picked up the pace, their chatter dying away as they concentrated on getting their stalls ready for the first rush of customers.

Balor looked up to where the spires of the Citadel rose delicately above the roof-tops. The pennants which the day before had fluttered so freely now hung limp and listless, curling lazily now and again as a half-hearted gust found its way up from the valley. Behind the spires the slope of the mountain rose cracked and pitted, the occasional streak of snow clinging desperately to some remote outcropping. He was very near the mountain now; the two arms that encompassed the city were closer together here, and the great jagged peak rose higher over his head. It seemed to frown down upon him. He looked away uncomfortably.

He knew he had to face up to his situation — he was lost, and he still did not have the first idea where Father was being held. So far all he had done on his great adventure was run from one danger to another. Well, he decided, no more. He was going to take control. He had set himself a task and he was going to complete it, and he was not going to let his fear stand in the way.

His thoughts were interrupted by a clopping, jingling sound approaching from the direction of the lower city. Thinking for a wild moment that perhaps the city guard had mounted up to come after him Balor slipped back into the shadows, watching the road, ready to run at the first sign of trouble.

From one of the roads leading into the square a column of brightly-armoured soldiers streamed, riding two-by-two on proud chargers, their harnesses jingling brightly and the horses’ hooves clopping loudly on the cobblestones. Balor stared. These soldiers were not like the soldiers who had come to the village: their armour was burnished, their heads held high, and their bearing noble and confident. They made the Baron’s men seem ragged and undisciplined.

Balor could not help but gape at them dumbly as they rode by. The tradesmen scattered before them like panicked pigeons, pulling barrows and boxes out of the way. The soldiers ignored them, their eyes fixed firmly ahead.

As Balor watched them cross the square a sudden thought came to him, a memory of what Banac had said in Craec Annwn. Soldiers guarded prisons, didn’t they? It had been the Baron’s soldiers who had taken Father away in the first place — perhaps these soldiers were the ones who were guarding him here. And even if they were not, they would all be going to the same place, wouldn’t they?

It was not much of a plan, but it was the only plan he had. The column was leaving the square now, making their way towards the citadel. Making sure to keep his distance, Balor scurried across the cobblestones after them.

*

The mountain rose impossibly high as the road wound back and forth in front of it, drawing nearer and nearer with each turn. Balor kept his eyes away from it, instead fixing them on the column of soldiers as he followed them up the road. There were few enough people about at this hour, but those who were swiftly stepped aside to let the soldiers pass. Balor kept his head down and stuck to the sides of the road, ignoring any strange looks he drew.

At last the column rounded a final bend in the road and clattered out into an enormous, empty square, surrounded on three sides by tall buildings of white stone. As the soldiers filed into the square Balor dropped back and scurried to one side, ducking behind a pillar as thick as an oak that supported the portico of the nearest building. From within the building he could hear the low murmur of voices and the opening and closing of doors, but no-one saw him and no-one stopped him.

Across the square, on the western side, a great cliff rose straight up, sheer and imposing, its shadow lying across the whole of the square and the buildings that surrounded it. Balor had no idea how high the cliff rose, but he knew that the houses of the village would look like a cluster of toys before it. He craned his neck, and saw at the very top of the cliff the towering spires of the Citadel, more beautiful now than they had ever looked from afar, rising like slender ash-trees to the white sky.

The sight took his breath away. Never had he imagined such things were possible. The men who had made this city must have been giants, or else some kind of magicians, to be able to build such things.

He looked down. The column of soldiers were making for a point mid-way along the cliff, where a narrow fissure ran in a straight line from the bottom all the way to the top. At the base of the cliff, standing on either side of the fissure, Balor could just about see two figures, rendered miniscule against the backdrop of the mountain. As the column of riders approached the fissure the figures stepped forward with spears crossed, and the column came to a halt. There was a pause while a brief exchange was carried out; Balor strained to hear what they were saying, but their voices did not carry. He supposed it must be some kind of password or code, because eventually the figures stepped back, satisfied, and the column rode onwards into the fissure.

Balor watched as one by one the riders were swallowed by the deep darkness between the sheer crags. When the last of the riders had disappeared it was as if they had never been there. The square fell into the same humid silence that lay over the rest of the upper city, broken only by the ever-present background hubbub from the open windows of the buildings around.

Balor did not move. He was not sure what his next move should be. He looked around, trying to see some way to gain access to the Citadel, but there was nothing: no stair, no path up the sheer face of the rock. It was an impossibly high climb, yet, as hard as Balor looked, he could not see how else it could be done.

While he was looking, a boy a year or two older than him emerged from a building on the other side of the square, clutching some papers in his hand. He was wearing a uniform, and he walked with efficient purpose to the same fissure the soldiers had just ridden through. Balor expected him to be stopped and questioned as they had been, but to his surprise the guards paid no attention and the boy hurried between them and disappeared.

Balor looked around again. There was still no sign of any way up to the Citadel out here; perhaps there was some kind of stair inside the fissure. As long as the guards were only stopping soldiers it could not hurt for him to check.

He stepped out from behind the pillar and walked across to the cliff, but as he drew near the guards looked up and lowered their spears. Balor stopped in his tracks, suddenly unsure.

“What do you want, then?” snapped the guard on the left.

Balor pointed behind them. “I wanted to have a look inside. If you don’t mind?”

In reply both guards burst out laughing.

“Have a look inside?”

“By all means!”

“Be our guest!”

Balor stayed where he was. For one thing, the spears were still lowered at him; for another, he had a strong suspicion the guards were making fun of him — and sure enough, when their laughs had died down the right-hand guard gave a shake of his spear.

“Go on with you,” he said, not unkindly, but with a tone that did not invite argument. “We’ve got jobs to do.”

“Yeah,” the other added. “I’m sure your daddy’s waiting for you at home, lad. Best get back to him, all right?”

And with that they turned their backs and carried on with their conversation, leaving Balor to wander away in confusion.

He went back to his pillar and sat in its shadow, watching the guards to see what it was that granted someone entrance, because clearly there were rules that had to be followed. After five minutes another uniformed boy emerged from one of the buildings and disappeared into the fissure; ten minutes later another boy appeared from within the fissure and went across to a different building. Both times the guards paid no attention. Then there came echoing hoofbeats from the direction of the road, and a richly-dressed rider entered the square and crossed over to the guards. This man was stopped and questioned, and as Balor watched an understanding began to form in his mind.

The next time he saw one of the boys crossing the square he leaned out from behind the pillar.

“Hey!” he whispered, trying to keep his voice low. The boy stopped and turned, looking around for whoever had called him. Balor waited until the boy had seen him, then beckoned urgently.

The boy frowned and looked around again. Balor beckoned harder. He knew if he stood out there for too long the guards would become suspicious. He was in luck. The boy took one more look around, then headed towards him.

“What is it?” he demanded in a superior tone, looking down his long nose at Balor as he approached. “Who are you?”

Balor put a finger to his lips and motioned for the boy to come closer. When he was within arm’s reach Balor pointed down a nearby alleyway between two of the buildings.

“Keep your voice down,” he hissed. “I don’t want to cause a fuss, but there’s a man down there, and he’s wearing all black, and he’s got a bow and a sword. I think he’s trying to break in.”

Immediately the boy’s thin face turned ashen, and his lip began to tremble. “A thief?” he whispered hoarsely. “We should tell someone! Where is he now? Which building was he looking at?”

“I’m not sure,” said Balor. “I didn’t stay around. I don’t want any trouble.”

The boy hesitated, torn between his errand and the thought of an armed stranger lurking in the shadows. “Show me,” he said eventually.

Balor offered up a silent thanks to Cafan and led the boy over to the alleyway. Once inside he took the lead. It was dim, and the boy stumbled as his eyes adjusted.

“Where did you say—?” he began, but before he could get any further Balor turned and punched him as hard as he could in the face.

The effect was not the one Balor had hoped for. Whereas a well-aimed punch from Banac was enough to knock a brute like Beothol out cold, Balor did not have Banac’s strength or Banac’s aim, and instead of being knocked out the boy just staggered back a few steps, then put his hand to his suddenly bleeding nose and looked up in shock.

“What did you do that for?” he demanded.

Balor looked at him dumbly. He had not reckoned on his first strike having such an unimpressive effect. For a moment they stood facing each other, neither one sure what was supposed to happen in this sort of situation, then Balor did the only thing he could think of: he ran forward, jumped on the boy and bore him to the ground, swinging his fists at his head.

The fight went on for a lot longer than Balor had anticipated. The boy fought back desperately, giving as good as he got, and at one point he managed to knock Balor down; but he was fighting a losing battle. He had grown up in a wealthy household, fighting other boys from wealthy households; Balor had grown up in the village, fighting Banac, and experience had taught him some valuable lessons: most importantly, that fists were not the only weapons available, and that teeth, foreheads, elbows and knees were equally as effective and tended to hurt less afterwards.

So he drove a combination of the four into the other boy, remembering to put all his weight behind the blows, until at last he managed a clean swing to the boy’s jaw that knocked him like a rag doll into the dirt where he lay unmoving.

For a horrible second Balor thought he might have killed him. He rushed to feel his chest and listen at his mouth. To his relief there was a strong heartbeat, and the boy was still breathing. He would be all right — though if Balor’s experience was anything to go by he would have a splitting headache when he woke up.

He would also be missing his clothes, but this could not be helped. It was, after all, the reason Balor had lured him into the alleyway in the first place.

*

Not long afterwards another errand-boy made his way across the square towards the fissure in the cliff. This one’s uniform did not fit as well as the others’ had (which was not surprising, as he had not been measured for it); he was also much dirtier, and his left cheek was turning a startling shade of purple, but he kept his head down and did his best to look as though he knew what he was doing, and just as he had planned the guards saw only the uniform and not the face above it, and they made no move to stop Balor as he passed between them.

As he entered the fissure Balor took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but to his surprise it was not nearly as dark as he had expected. Not only that, the light was not flickering torchlight — it was the clear light of day, and it came from somewhere high above him.

He looked up, and choked back a gasp.

The sides of the fissure rose up, sheer and smooth, far above Balor’s head. There, three hundred feet up, he could see a narrow strip of grey sky that ran in a straight line towards the mountain. He looked down. Ahead of him the fissure continued straight back into the cliff, but it did not remain level; after a few feet the floor began to rise gently in a series of long steps, rising higher and higher the further back the cleft progressed. By the time he climbed those steps he would have walked almost the whole length of the ledge upon which the Citadel was built, and climbed three hundred feet and more, and so he would emerge upon the lap of the mountain. Such was the way that any must take who wished to gain entrance to the Citadel of Padascel.

But of the long ascent, and where it led, Balor knew nothing yet. All he knew was that the soldiers had come that way, and that against all hope Father might have passed that way also.

He set his foot on the first step, and began to climb.

*

Ten minutes later he was already out of breath, and he was only half-way up the stair. He paused for a rest and looked back, but immediately closed his eyes and turned away as the same sickening dizziness that had assaulted him on the cliffs outside the city returned. He felt as though he was about to tumble back down the way he had come. The stairs were not especially steep, but their length combined with the narrowness of the fissure made them seem more so.

Balor found that he could not bear to look at it. He took deep breaths, composed himself, and after waiting for a minute longer he continued the ascent.

As he climbed he could not help marvelling at everything he saw. If the men who had carved this stair had intended it as a defence against invaders, then they had done a good job. The stair passed through three gateways on its way to the Citadel. Each gateway was surmounted by a rampart where men could stand and thrust down with spears, and flanked by narrow windows cut into the rock where archers could be stationed.

But war had not come to Padascel for many years, and the gates stood wide open and the fortifications were unmanned. Cracks showed here and there in the stonework, inexpertly repaired by those who did not fully understand its manner of construction — and who could blame them? For the men who had built the stairway were those the bards called the Aldemen, the Sons of Cafan, and in their days Padascel had possessed another name and been inhabited by lords and kings from legend; and who in these latter days could match the craftsmanship of such people?

So Balor passed the same way Naedoras the Spear-Son had trodden a thousand years before him, and so he reached the Citadel of Padascel, sweating in his stolen uniform. But as he dragged his feet up the last steps he forgot his exhaustion, as all his dreams came to life, and all the stories sprang into reality before his eyes, and he stopped dead in his tracks and simply stared, over-awed by the sight that met him.

If ever there was a place that deserved the praise of the bards, it was the Citadel of Padascel. How long the building of that place had been no man can say. It is said that the stones of the Palace alone were brought more than two hundred miles from the place where they were quarried, massive slabs of glistening white rock that dazzled the eye when the sun caught them, making the city a shining beacon that could be seen for miles around. The buildings surrounding the Palace were equally fair, and were filled with wise men who debated the matters of law and justice and taught the younger generation their secrets.

There was no rubbish in those streets, for silent armies of servants scuttled constantly to and fro to remove it. Only beautiful things were allowed to remain — the white buildings, the quiet colonnades, the green lawns and trickling fountains — and only the young and beautiful were permitted to walk its parks and gardens, with the exception of the many priests, councillors and scholars who oiled the wheels of bureaucracy and spent their days in dark rooms filled with parchment and dust.

At the head of the long stair stood the Heroes’ Arch, beneath which all had to pass who wished to enter or leave the Citadel. It was a massive structure of white stone, carved with frescoes depicting the old stories: Tiran with Narael his love; Naedoras, Cirymbl, and Anomed; Maedwr and Tyorlael; Edorad and Edoran — the greatest of all the men and women who had ever walked the earth beneath Cafan’s gaze.

From the apex of the arch hung a more recent addition: a heavy wooden cross, the symbol of Iescwd, the new god whom the Oscemen had brought from the south and left behind when their kingdom failed. It was a widely known fact that the king was an adherent of the young religion, and that he had allowed it to spread and settle during the long years of his reign; Iescwd’s priests held offices in the royal council, and more churches and chapels sprang up in the Greenweald with every passing year. The mention of Cafan’s name was increasingly confined to the small towns and villages, and was forbidden by law in any of the official buildings within Padascel, superseded by the names of Iescwd and Ieofa his father.

But of such changes in the practices of the rich Balor was unaware, and to him the cross was merely a curio; he was too busy gawping at everything else to notice such details.

From the Heroes’ Arch a wide boulevard ran between tall white buildings, opening out into a wide circular plaza where a green lawn was criss-crossed by small paths and dotted with trees and fountains. Around the edge of the plaza were more buildings, all equally impressive, all rising four or even five storeys high, with pennants and banners draped from their balconies. These were the hub of government in the lands of Padascel: the Royal College, the Armouries, the Treasury, the King’s Chapel, the Embassy, and, standing tallest and proudest, the white shard of its tower piercing the sky, the Royal Palace, the seat of the king, the very centre of power in those wide lands.

Balor stumbled down the boulevard in awe, gawping helplessly at everything he saw. He hardly knew what to think when he emerged from the boulevard and saw the tall buildings rising all around him and the Palace towering ahead. For a long time he stood and gaped at it all, ignored by the important figures who hurried to and fro, their heads bowed in thought and their rich garments swishing after them. How was he supposed to find Father in all of this? Where was he even supposed to start? He looked around for the soldiers, but they had disappeared, leaving him without the first clue of where to go next.

There was not else he could do, so he picked a direction and began walking, his eyes roving and awe and wonder as he was swallowed up by the crowded streets of the Citadel.

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