Seventh Circle (Chapter 4 - Balduur's Head, page 2 of 4)


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'Balduur besieged our fortress of Dunavon. He camped beside the marshes believing he was safe from attack. But he was not mindful of the Holy Mother. She sent a cold wind. It blew all night and the marshes froze. Land that had been impassable could now be crossed. In the morrow, Balduur's drums beat for the dawn ceremony ... and that was our signal to attack.'

She pointed to another boy.

'What happened then?'

'The chariots drove over the marshes and killed all the Gorms.'

'Not all of them,' the old woman said. 'Some ran away.'

'But you killed Balduur and cut off his head.'

'That's right,' another boy said. 'You keep it in a box.'

'Why do you do that?' a tiny voice asked.

'Tell him.' She pointed to an older boy.

The lad stepped forward. 'The heads of our principal enemies are removed and preserved by smoking and the application of special oils. They are taken to a place of safety and closely guarded. This is done to ensure that the soul lights do not escape and enter the body of the unborn.'

'How might they escape?' the old woman asked.

The boy stiffened. 'The soul light remains trapped so long as the head does not decay or be consumed by fire.'

'Very good, Dugan son of Dugan,' she smiled. 'The soul light remains trapped and will not escape to cause further pain so long as the head does not decay or be consumed by fire ...'

For a moment it seemed she would continue. Then she turned abruptly and strode towards the Great Hall with her guard, as if seized by a sudden thought.

***

A covered flight of stairs led up the outside of the huge wooden building. The old woman plodded up it, followed by the girls of her guard who kept close, ready to catch her if she fell, but not daring to offer assistance. After many stops for breath, she halted before a massive door and took a key from a chain about her waist. After several attempts, her arthritic fingers managed to engage the mechanism. The bolt slid back and the door opened.

Inside, the air was thick with the rancid smell of burning fat. Tallow lamps hung from iron hooks. Their feeble light illuminated the blackened walls and arching roof of a long chamber. Grotesque faces peered down. Carved into the wall panels and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, they shimmered in the darkness as if suspended in space.

A table stretched the length of the chamber. The surface was polished with fresh beeswax and covered in wooden boxes. Some were of plain wood. Others were carved. She sank down on a bench and cast her eyes amongst them. Her gaze flitted back and forth and settled on one that stood out from the rest.

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