The Endless Circle – Chapter 33: Found

Reaching Hand (c) Brett Sayer

Dusk fell, bringing the grey day to a close. All over the city shopkeepers barred their windows and locked their doors, women tucked their children into bed, merchants counted their money, drunkards sang in the taverns, and the citizens of Padascel prepared for nightfall. Some glanced up at the night sky as they went and remarked at the sight they saw: a new star, brighter than the rest, with a long tail that streamed away from it as it rode high above the tattered clouds over the horn of the mountain. The astronomers in the Royal College reached for their books of learning and made a note of the date and time and positions of the other stars; the more superstitious amongst the ordinary men fingered crosses and muttered prayers to Iescwd; some took it as a sign of blessing, others as a sign of curse.

But not all. For some, there were more pressing matters to attend to.

Banac lay in Berethel’s house with Elwaen sitting beside him, thinking of everything that was happening without him, while Berethel rode through the streets at the head of a column of his finest men, their faces grim and their swords sharp as they made their way to the Citadel. The Scholar had already arrived at the Palace, and was making his way into the lower cellars with Aedwyc close behind him. In the holy place masked men were assembling, building up the fires that would light their rituals, whilst in his room high in the palace their leader donned his own mask and knelt in prayer to his gods; and in the alleyway between the college and the palace Father crept silently, looking around to make sure he was not seen.

Only Balor knew nothing of the impending drama. He knew of no meeting, no plots, no secret messages, no riders going to the arrest. All he knew was that he was tired, and cold, and scared, and that hours of walking up and down the streets of the Citadel had yielded no clue as to where Father was being held.

He sat on a bench in the now-empty plaza, looking out over the pristine lawns and rubbing his arms to try to keep warm. Everyone else had left over an hour ago; the only sign of life he had seen since was the occasional black-robed official hurrying along one of the paths with his head down, going about some important palace business.

He shivered again. The uniform he had stolen only just fit him, and there was a gap between the tunic and the trousers where his skin showed. The air was not cold, but neither was it warm, and he found himself longing for a room inside somewhere with a soft bed, and blankets to cover him. It seemed like such a long time since he had had any of those things; he was beginning to forget what they felt like.

He was also hungry, and tired, and disconsolate. Hours of searching and keeping his head down had yielded nothing except more and more buildings and suspicious looks from those he passed. He had not been able to pluck up the courage to ask anyone for information, and besides, he reasoned, if he had been a real servant with real business in the Citadel then he would have known where he was going, and asking directions would only draw attention. Attention was one thing he could do without.

So he had wandered round and round, passing the same ways again and again, and always he came back to the wide plaza in front of the palace with its sparkling fountains and welcome benches, where he would sit and rest his aching feet for five minutes before moving on to continue the search.

But his last circuit had been an hour ago, and the hope and determination that had burned so brightly within him that morning had withered away to a pale memory if itself, and he wanted nothing more than to go home.

He looked up. The new star was hanging like a pale flame above the mountain, but Balor did not know that it was new, and he would not have cared anyway. His head nodded down on to his chest; he was struggling to keep his eyes open. He did not want to fall asleep in this place, but it was getting so hard, so hard to resist …

Slowly, reluctantly, Balor drifted away into uneasy slumber.

* * *

Father kept his head down as he scurried across the darkened plaza towards the palace, praying that no-one would stop him. He would be hard pressed to give a convincing explanation if anyone asked what he had been doing in the college, and he knew that the masked man would detect a lie instantly; so he moved quickly and quietly, thanking Cafan that the crowds had dispersed with the closing of the day. His heart was light from the time he had passed with Calwyd, exchanging stories and news over cups of spiced wine, and he made a vow that when this business was over and done with he would come back to spend more time with the old man.

There was only one other person out in the plaza at that time, and when Father saw her he stopped and drew back at first. She stood between him and the palace, and she was half-turned so that she faced the lawn; but when Father took a step towards her she turned her head to face him, and he saw with a jolt that her skin was white, and her hair was dark and straight, and she was old, older than anyone had any right to be, but the age was in her eyes and her expression, and her skin was smooth and flawless.

She smiled at him and raised a finger to her lips, then pointed into the darkness of the plaza. Puzzled, Father followed her gesture, and after a moment of squinting through the darkness he saw what she was pointing at: a boy, lying asleep on a bench in the middle of the park. He was dressed in the uniform of a governmental under-servant, and he must have had a hard day’s work, for he was so sound asleep that he did not notice the evening chill. Father looked back at the woman, but she had gone, and he was alone. No-one else was about. The plaza was dark and deserted.

For a moment he wondered who she might have been; but he could not imagine, so he broke away from the palace wall and hurried across the grass to wake the lad before he caught a cold. As he approached he could not help thinking of his own boys, and a smile crept on to his face as he thought of their laughter, their quick eyes, their endless questions and their sharp minds. He was so proud of them, so very proud. He could not wait to see them again.

“Hey,” he whispered as he approached the boy. “Lad. Wake up. It’s late.”

He reached out to shake the boy from his slumber, but as his hand touched the boy’s shoulder he jerked awake, and he looked up at Father with eyes wide with terror.

And Father’s heart turned to ice.

* * *

Balor was dreaming.

In the dream he was back at home, in his own bed, and it was morning. The house was empty. He could hear Mother working outside, clattering away on her spindle as she spun wool for clothes. He did not know where Banac was, but it did not trouble him: he would be around somewhere, probably up to no good.

One thing did trouble him: the bed opposite his was occupied, but he could not see who was in it. He frowned, uneasy at having a stranger in his house, and called for Mother. She did not come, and the clattering of the spindle continued.

He sat up in bed and looked over at the humped form. He had the feeling that it was Father, with the unconscious instinct that comes only in dreams; but that knowledge only served to make him more uneasy.

He called Father’s name. The humped form stirred, and Balor’s uneasiness grew. He wanted to lie back down and go to sleep and leave the person in the bed alone, but without wanting to he called out again, and again the form stirred, rolling over beneath its blankets.

Balor was frightened now. He tried to stop himself, but he could not help it — he called out again, and again, and each time the unknown person under the sheets grew more and more agitated, stirring restlessly, its face always hidden beneath the blankets.

Then the sheets slipped back, and a black-gloved hand emerged, followed by a robed arm that reached up and pulled the covers away, revealing the bed’s occupant: a man, his face covered by a leather mask in which two eye-slits stared blankly at Balor. The man swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up, and suddenly Balor wanted to get out of the house and run away, but he could not. He was frozen to his bed, and now his voice was gone, and though he called Mother’s name no sound would come out.

The man’s feet touched the floor. He stood up and began to cross the room. Balor tried to move, but still he could not. He tried to call out, but still he could not. The man reached out a black-gloved hand to touch him, and Balor looked into the blank eye-slits and saw no eyes there, just darkness that went on and on, and the hand came closer, and closer, and still Balor could not scream, and now he could not breathe, and then the hand touched his shoulder, and it was like ice and fire rushing through him at once, and he jerked back as if struck —

— and woke up, panting and terrified, to see a dark stranger standing over him with his hand on his shoulder.

No-one could have blamed him for screaming; but the scream only lasted for half a second, because a hand was quickly clamped over his mouth, muffling the cry. He struggled and writhed to get away, but another hand wrapped around his body, pinning his arms. Panic gripped him. He imagined the galac-men had found him, and they were going to take him away and kill him.

But he was not the same scared little boy he had been a week ago. Through all the terrible experiences he had been through he had found reserves of courage and determination he never knew he possessed; and now, even through the panic, he knew what he must do.

So he bit down on the hand that held his mouth.

He tasted blood. The man released him with a startled cry and he slipped like a fish from his grasp and began running over the darkened lawn. He did not known where he was going: he only knew that he was running away from certain death.

The man shouted something that Balor could not hear. He ignored it, put his head down, and ran faster.

The man shouted again, and this time something in his voice made Balor falter, then slow, then stop as the man shouted again:

“Balor! Balor! Stop! Wait!”

Balor turned, his heart pounding like a hammer. He was shaking, but now it was not from panic or fear. It was the shaking of confusion, of a hope that dared not be fulfilled, of the unwillingness to believe that it could ever be so.

The man faced him across the lawn, clutching his bitten hand to his chest. Balor knew that stance — the way the man planted his feet, the squareness of his shoulders, the tilt of his head — and though he could not see the man’s face he knew who it was. Every fibre of his being knew it, as surely as he knew that stars blazed in the sky and day followed night, and with that realisation he began to run again; but not away. He was running towards the man now, towards the one whose face he had seen every night in his dreams since they had left the village, towards the one whom he had last seen in chains, and who now appeared to him against all hope in the middle of this vast city. He ran as hard as he could, faster than he had ever run in his life — because what spurred him on was not fear. It was far stronger than that. It was love.

So Balor found Father, and Father found Balor, and they met in the night-shrouded plaza in a clash of bodies and a flurry of tears, and clutched each other tight like dying men who know their only hope is to hold on and never let go. Father was speaking, whispering words of love in Balor’s ear, but Balor did not hear them. He did not need to. The words he heard were the unspoken ones: the words that pass from heart to heart and need neither ears to hear nor mouth to utter, and he drank them in and held Father as tightly as he could; and neither one cared if the embrace hurt them, for it was the pain of love, the pain whose smart is welcome and whose scars are treasured forever. They lost themselves in the sweet, sweet pain of reunion, and for a long time they forgot all else in the joy that was theirs and theirs alone.

Only when the tears were spent did they come apart, and stood looking at each other for a long while. Father shook his head, still unwilling or unable to believe the evidence of his own eyes.

“Balor?” he said. “Is it really you?”

Balor nodded, and his eyes shone. “Yes,” he said. “It’s me. I found you.”

“Yes.” Father smiled as only a father could. “You found me, Balor. You found me.”

They hugged again, a quick, fierce embrace, then Father crouched and looked deep into Balor’s eyes.

“How did you come here?” he said. “Is Haemel with you?”

Balor flinched at the mention of the name, and Father knew immediately that something had happened.

“What is it?” he said. “Balor. Tell me. Where is Banac? Is he here with you?”

Balor nodded. “Yes. But I don’t know where he is,” he added. “We lost him. And Haemel—”

The words stuck in his throat. Father put his hands on his shoulders and squeezed them reassuringly. “It’s all right. Just tell me what happened — as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”

So, just as Banac had done, Balor told his story. His version was less complete and more circuitous than Banac’s, and when he came to the part about his escape in the sewers he faltered, but Father spoke quietly to him and teased out the remaining details; and when he was finished he had touched on all the vital points and given Father a more or less complete picture of everything that had happened since the day they had parted. Father nodded gravely, taking everything in, understanding what it meant. If there had been any doubt in his mind it was gone. Now he knew exactly what they must do.

“Come on,” he said, standing and grasping Balor’s hand.

“Where are we going?” Balor asked as they set off across the darkened lawn.

“I’m going to take you somewhere safe, then I’m going to go and find Banac, and when I’ve found him we’re going to leave this city and we are never going to come back. All right?”

Balor nodded firmly. “All right,” he agreed.

They walked down the wide, empty boulevard towards the Heroes’ Arch, moving swiftly and silently in the gathering dark. Father said nothing, but his face was grim. Whatever had gone between them in the past, Haemel would have to look after himself from now on. Father would not be a part of it. He had his sons to take care of, and they came before everything else.

“What about the soldiers?” Balor asked as they walked. “And the Scholar? Aren’t you arrested any more?”

“It was a misunderstanding.” Father brushed the question aside. “I never should have been arrested in the first place.” He felt a twinge of guilt at having to lie to his own son, but it was better than him knowing the truth.

Balor accepted the answer unreservedly and squeezed his hand. “I’m glad we’re going home now,” he said, and Father smiled.

“Me too,” he said. “Me too.”

The Heroes’ Arch loomed out of the darkness, the cross swinging in the breeze. When Father saw it a wave of relief washed through him, hot and powerful, causing more tears to prick at the corners of his eyes. This was it. They were going to make it. They were going to leave Padascel, and no-one was going to stop them.

Then a tall, thin figure stepped from the shadows beside the Arch, and relief turned to icy fear as Father recognised him.

“Good evening,” said Aedor. “I hope sir is enjoying his evening stroll?”

Father slowed and stopped, gently pushing Balor behind him as he did so. “Fresh air,” he said, gripping Balor’s hand to keep him from speaking out. “I found my rooms a little close, so I decided to take a turn about the Citadel to clear my head.”

Aedor nodded. “Most advisable. I trust sir’s head is sufficiently cleared by now?”

“Well, I had hoped to take a quick walk to the lower city,” Father said.

Aedor shook his head. “I’m afraid that will be out of the question,” he said. “If sir may recall, sir has a prior appointment. It would not do for sir to be late.”

Father looked into Aedor’s eyes, and saw the coldness that was there, and knew there was no point pleading with the man. “All right,” he said. “It can wait until tomorrow, I’m sure.”

“Sir is very wise.” Aedor smiled thinly, then looked past Father to where Balor stood. “And who is this?” he said, crouching down to Balor’s level.

“My son,” Father said. He did not move, and kept Balor behind him.

“A son? Wonderful. I have three children myself. Two girls and a boy. It is a rare wonder, is it not? The privilege of parenthood, I mean.” Aedor smiled again, then addressed Balor. “And what’s your name, young man?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Father answered for him. Aedor looked up at him, and his smile disappeared. He straightened up, then beckoned to the shadows from which he had come. Four armed soldiers stepped into view, their hands resting on their sheathed swords.

“These men will accompany you back to your rooms,” he said, dropping the affected civility of the ‘sir’. “To ensure your safety, of course.”

“Of course.” Father glared at him, but Aedor met the glare with a blank, disinterested expression of his own then turned away, and without another word he disappeared into the night.

“Where are we going?” Balor asked as the soldiers took up their positions around them. Father put an arm around his shoulders.

“Just a formality,” he said. “Some papers I forgot to fill in. Come on. You must be hungry. I think we can get you something to eat.”

“But what about Banac?” Balor looked over his shoulder as they started back the way they had come. “He’s down there, not up here. Aren’t we going to find him?”

“Soon,” Father assured him. “We’ll find him soon.”

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