Seventh Circle (Chapter 4 - Balduur's Head, page 1 of 4)

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Thin columns of smoke rose above the rooftops, wispy and white in the still morning air. In the narrow alleys, between the houses, barefoot boys ran yelling at the top of their voices, trying to round up cattle that had escaped from their charge. They wore short leather cloaks and, despite the cold, this was their only garment.

The buildings were of stone and timber. Most had two stories. The ground floors were for animals and the upper for people. Here and there, larger structures poked up above the roofline. One was the Great Hall, a massive wooden building with a towering shingle roof.

In the market place, beside the Great Hall, women in brightly coloured dresses crowded against walls and sheltered in doorways, trying to avoid the stampeding cattle. As the pandemonium died down, they made their way back into the open, carrying baskets piled with produce.

An old woman left the Great Hall and made her way amongst them. She walked with the aid of a stick and was flanked by two young women with spears and ceremonial shields. The crowd parted to let the old woman pass and hands reached out to kiss the hem of her flowing cloak and touch the image of the mother goddess that hung about her neck.

She came to the centre of the market place where the herdboys were gathered about a big fire. They seemed surprised to see her and chattered excitedly until called to silence by the girls of her guard.

'May the Holy Mother be with you, my children.'

She raised a hand in a sign of benediction.

'May the Holy Mother be with you, Majesty.'

The boys returned the greeting and waited expectantly.

Her eyes passed from one to the other.

'Which of you are preparing for warrior training?'

Some of the older boys stepped forward. The old woman examined them and nodded gravely as if deep in thought. The boys waited in silence, aware that she would not have come amongst them if she had not had something important to say.

At last she spoke. 'You remind me of when I was young and Balduur was War Master of Gorm.' She pointed to one of the boys. 'Tell us about Balduur.'

The boy rose and began to recite.

'Balduur invited the Duideth into our land. The foul priests came with the images of the one they call the Lord Sun. They destroyed the shrines of the Holy Mother and killed the Blessed Sisters of Rebirth. Then Cronwyn gathered together a great army and led it against Balduur ...'

'Very good,' the old woman smiled approvingly. 'You have learnt your lessons well. She pointed to another boy. 'What happened then?'

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